Used tires sold in Indiana despite safety concerns

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Two wooden crosses still hug the shoulder of Interstate 70 in Hendricks County. The crosses mark the spot of a 2009 crash that killed 20-year-old Erin Ford and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Luke Lovins.

Erin’s mother, Debbie, survived the crash – along with her husband, Fred, and their son, Chandler. All three were seriously hurt.

“We were driving down the interstate and just out of the corner of my eye I saw something coming towards us. And I remember hearing my husband say, ‘Watch that truck,’” Debbie recalled during an interview with I-Team 8.

They couldn’t avoid the collision. The Ford F-350 headed westbound blew a tire, crossed the interstate’s median and struck the Chevy Malibu carrying the five people nearly head on. Luke died at the scene – Erin a day later. A state police crash report indicated the primary cause: tire failure.

The report states the unharmed driver, Alfredo Martinez, told police he “had purchased the front tires used from a junk yard” approximately five months before the crash. State police photos show the left front tire was nine years old at the time of the crash. Its tread had separated.

While Indiana requires inspections of commercial vehicles, state law does not require inspections of passenger cars. The state also doesn’t restrict the sale of used tires, nor does it have consumer laws protecting those who buy them, according to Indiana State Police and the Indiana Attorney General’s office.

An I-Team 8 investigation found used tires are often a cheap and easy fix for those who can’t afford new tires. But the investigation also found the rules governing what can be sold are loose, opinions are mixed, and the consequences when a used tire fails are potentially deadly.

FEW RULES, STATE MONEY SAVER

I-Team 8 found used tires are sold at cheap prices with relative frequency in Indianapolis, where few rules governing the tires sold. I-Team 8 also discovered the state of Indiana even sells used tires through an online auction website.

Connie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Administration, told I-Team 8 by email: “The practice is not prohibited by state statute and Indiana taxpayers receive (a) return for their investment in state-owned automobiles/equipment, as opposed to the state paying $3 per tire for disposal. There is obviously a market for the tires that still have life; a major buyer is a used tire store. Used tires sold by the state are without holes or obvious tread damage and are only sold following careful inspection.”

Smith said the state’s careful inspection standard involves: “factory wear bars are not showing, the tire shows no signs of unacceptable wear patterns (cupping, feathering, flat spots, uneven wear), no signs of cracking along sidewall or tread area or any other damage that would indicated the tire is not appropriate for use.”

The three tires purchased as part of an I-Team investigation. Click here to get a closer look at the tires.
The three tires purchased as part of an I-Team investigation. Click here to get a closer look at the tires.

BALD TIRES, BAD INFORMATION

I-Team 8’s hidden camera investigation found salesmen at several used tire retailers across the city were willing to sell tires that had been run flat, plugged, showed visible signs of age, and in some cases had little to no tread.

While many of the retailers our producers visited were willing to sell us “newer” used tires with more tread life, a few were willing to sell us just about anything.

“That one is $20,” one salesman remarked. When pressed as to why $20, he replied: “low tread.”

Another salesman was more upfront, saying, “I don’t want to sell you anything I wouldn’t put on my car.”

While many gave candid responses about the potential short shelf life for used tires, at least two retailers gave I-Team 8 wrong information, saying there was no way to determine a tire’s age.

That simply isn’t true. A tire’s age is encoded on the sidewall of every tire.

It’s printed in code by the week and year it was manufactured (see example photo below).

MIXED OPINIONS ON SAFETY

WISH-TV producers purchased three tires from three separate stores over the course of a few weeks. The tired were then examined by tire safety lobbyists, a mechanic and an Indiana State Police commercial vehicle inspector, Sgt. Ty Utterback – the same officer who investigated the crash that killed Erin Ford and Luke Lovins.

One tire purchased from a local retailer seemed to get mixed reviews from both Utterback and Russ Dillard, a mechanic at Beck Service Center in Indianapolis.

“I’m surprised someone would even sell you this because this is essentially an unsafe tire.”— Russ Dillard, Mechanic

“It’s probably not unreasonable to think that there are literally thousands of tires in that type of condition or worse that are on the roadway,” Utterback said, referring to a tire that had been plugged and still had a nail embedded into it.

Dillard said: “It doesn’t appear to be in too terribly bad of shape. It’s got some nice decent tread. The only thing that concerns me is starting to show some weather cracking between the treads.”

I-Team 8 bought another tire for $15 from a different retailer called Tron’s Tire Shop.

The salesman there said it was safe to use as a spare or a quick fix and the tire was safe to drive on. When asked if it was safe to put on a car, he replied, “I don’t see why not. If you want to.”

But Dillard and Sgt. Utterback had different reactions.

“I don’t think so. Not for me… I’m not sure I would mount that as even a spare tire,” Utterback said.

Dillard’s opposition to this particular used tire was even stronger

“This tire should not be on the road,” he said. “I’m surprised someone would even sell you this because this is essentially an unsafe tire.”

Dillard explained that the tire’s wear bars were showing, an indicator of load tread. And after taking a measurement, the tread on the tire was less than 2/32nds of an inch, which wouldn’t pass a commercial vehicle inspection in Indiana. Only commercial vehicles are inspected in Indiana, not passenger cars.

When we went back to follow up at Tron’s, the salesman initially denied that I-Team 8 bought the tire from him, but he admitted to it after seeing a receipt. When asked if he thought the tire was safe, he said, “Yeah, you can drive on it if you want to.”

He also could not say how to read the age on the tire, even though it was encoded on the sidewall.

The two other retailers where we bought used tires declined to comment about the products they are selling.

LOBBYISTS DISAGREE ON TIRE SAFETY

Sean Kane with the consumer group Safety Research and Strategies cautioned against buying used tires.

“You never really know what the history of that tire use has been.”— Dan Zielinski, Rubber Manufacturer’s Association

“Frankly, I don’t recommend buying used tires as at all. I think used tires present a lot of hazards that are unknown, that are unseen. And frequently the cost of tires today is not that great. You can find a decent tire at a decent price, then you are better off doing that,” said Kane, whose group, he admits, often works for trial attorneys.

Kane said a tire’s age is a critical component when considering its condition.

“Material degradation happens. It’s a fact of life. Just as I [get] older, I’m less elastic. That tire, as it gets older, is less elastic,” Kane said in an interview with I-Team 8.

Dan Zielinski with the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association, which represents the big tire manufacturing companies, also cautions against purchasing used tires.

“First of all our advice is buyer beware. You never really know what the history of that tire use has been,” Zielinski said.

While Zielinski and Kane caution against used tires, they disagree strongly about what may make them problematic. Zielinski’s group denies that a tire’s age alone could help determine its condition.

“There’s no scientific or technical data that would support removing a tire at a particular age,” he said.

The RMA has pushed to restrict the sale of used tires in several states, but none has led to a change in state law. And none of the legislation the group supports has included a restriction based on age.

“We think including an age-related replacement requirement and calling it an unsafe condition is a mischaracterization and it’s essentially misleading consumers,” Zielinski said.

But Kane has a different perspective.

“Almost every single vehicle manufacturer recommends a replacement of a tire after six years regardless of tread,” Kane said.

NO CHANGE IN INDIANA

Indiana lawmakers have not passed legislation restricting used tire sales. No bills were presented during this year’s session. It’s not clear if bills dealing with the issue will be pitched in the near future.

Standing Roads Committee chairman Rep. Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso) did not respond to repeated calls requesting comment.

While most states have laws regarding the disposal of used tires, few restrict their sales.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association has backed legislation in at least four states – Texas, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia – calling for certain restrictions on the sale of used tires. But none has led to a change in state law, according to the RMA’s Zielinski.

“We want to see more states look at the issue of used tires,” he said.

Similar legislation has not been pitched in Indiana in recent years. State Rep. Ed Delaney (D-Indianapolis) a member of the state’s standing committee on roads and transportation, said he doesn’t recall the committee ever considering a bill that would restrict used tire sales.

“There seems to be a big market for it,” Delaney told I-Team 8 by phone. “To me it’s a little confusing,” he added, saying that new tires can provide “60,000 miles” making used tires less attractive but a necessity for individuals who don’t have the resources to afford new ones.

Delaney said he knows the harsh winter and seemingly endless number of potholes aren’t making it any easier on tires across Indiana.

FAMILY’S LASTING PLAN

Debbie Ford’s husband Fred has struggled with the loss of Erin. Fred didn’t want to be interviewed by I-Team 8. In fact, he wasn’t even present when our interview with Debbie occurred.

“She was a dancer. She had the personality that just brightened a room,” Debbie said of Erin. “I have a death that we have to deal with every day and the pain that my husband suffered with his head trauma and my shoulder will never be right,” Debbie Ford said. “The loss that Luke’s mom and I suffered together. That’s a terrible thing to have to share.”

Erin Ford’s bedroom remains virtually untouched. It’s been that way for five years.

“To this day it’s disbelief. I can walk in her room and just look around. Her dance shoes are still hanging on her bulletin board. Her room is pretty much like she left it,” Debbie Ford said. “We miss them both (Erin and Luke). They wanted to be together and they are.”

Tonda Lovins has struggled with the loss of her son Luke. She has sympathy for those that can only afford used tires.

“I’ve had to use them before myself,” Tonda Lovins said.

With wrongful death civil lawsuits settled against the tire maker, the junk yard that sold the used tire, the pickup driver and Indiana’s Department of Transportation, both mothers say the loss of their children should be the impetus for tougher restrictions on used tires.

“I feel like that’s something that should be addressed,” Debbie Ford said.

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