Like many people, Carolyne Thorne once thought recalled tires got whisked off cars quickly in the name of highway safety.
But that was before the left rear tire on her Ford Expedition tore apart in 2004, sparking a rollover accident that left her largely paralyzed and taught her a grim lesson in the shortcomings of the U.S. recall system.
Earlier, in 2002, Mrs. Thorne, a 57-year-old grandmother from Montgomery, Ala., had received a notice in the mail warning her that her Continental tires were potentially defective because they’d had a high number of so-called tread separations, an unraveling of the steel belts. Concerned, she took the car to her local Ford dealer and was assured that her tires weren’t part of the recall. Over the next two years, her tires were checked as part of regular servicing on eight occasions at her local Wal-Mart, including a week before the crash. But nobody ever noticed that she was running on a recalled tire.
"My expertise is working with children, not tires," says Mrs. Thorne, who until the accident ran her own business setting up day-care centers in local churches. "That’s why you go to experts."
The current uproar over tainted products from China, including children’s toys containing lead paint, has put the U.S. recall system under scrutiny. But even as Congress and some states have responded with calls to beef up safety standards, there is little awareness of what happens after a recall. As Mrs. Thorne’s case shows, the system can fail to alert consumers of recalls and to ensure that recalled products are taken out of consumers’ hands.
Notifying consumers is a problem in many kinds of recalls, in part because of the sheer volume of recall announcements. An average of 28 recalls are announced each week, says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor of communications at the University of New Mexico who studies recalls. Six separate arms of the government have the authority to do recalls, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Coast Guard and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Most recalls involve inexpensive or expendable items like firecrackers or potato salad. Often, consumers never even realize they have a recalled item or, if they do, they decide it isn’t worth the trouble to take it back to the store or write to the manufacturer for a refund or replacement. Consumers can keep track of recalls at www.recalls.gov, a government-run site.
"The public tends to tune all this out, unless it’s relevant to them and involves a bigger-ticket item like their car," says Mr. Gibson.
When it comes to getting the word out about a recall, there are few consumer products that are easy for manufacturers to track. Cars and trucks have unique vehicle identification numbers that can be linked to vehicle registrations. Tires are supposed to be registered with manufacturers, but they seldom are. For the bulk of consumer goods, recalls largely depend on consumers’ noticing publicity and news coverage.
As a result, many recalled goods are never recovered by manufacturers or repaired, such as by replacing a faulty hinge or other part — which in the case of tires is especially dangerous because defects can lead to serious accidents. Only twice in the past decade have recalls recovered more than half of the tires targeted in a given year, according to government statistics. It’s not unusual for recovery rates on tires to be 20% or less.
Even highly publicized tire recalls don’t always have much impact. Richard Kuskin, president of Foreign Tire Sales Inc. of Union, N.J., who recently announced he needed to recall hundreds of thousands of potentially defective Chinese-made tires, says fewer than 10,000 have been recovered thus far.
"That’s about 4% of the tires that are out there," he says. "And it’s not like this thing didn’t get plenty of publicity." Along with the news stories about the recall, Mr. Kuskin ran advertisements and sent notices to the small number of people who had registered their tires.
One reason for poor recovery rates is the antiquated technology used by federal safety officials to track tire recalls. When a recall occurs, the manufacturer generally sends warning notices to customers and dealers, identifying the tires by type, size and "DOT number" a number molded into the sidewall that starts with the letters DOT and indicates the week and year in which the tire was made. But there is no central database that allows a consumer or even a tire-shop owner to quickly match the numbers on the tire with the numbers in the recall notice. The NHTSA does have a database, but it is cumbersome to use and doesn’t allow searches using DOT numbers.
Instead, the system boils down to the piles of warning notices sent to retailers, which end up in notebooks or file drawers at neighborhood tire shops. If a notebook page goes missing, a recall can easily be missed.
Jeffrey Voigt, owner of Bastrop Tire & Automotive in Bastrop, Texas, and a former president of the Texas Tire Dealers Association, says it’s unreasonable to expect the shop that changes your oil or rotates your tires to be responsible for checking on recalled tires. For one thing, he learns directly about recalls only from manufacturers of the tire brand he carries. He is an independent BridgestoneFirestone tire dealer. So in the case of the Continental tire on Mrs. Thorne’s car, he wouldn’t have even gotten a notice. "It would be like a Chevy recall — but I’m a Ford dealer," Mr. Voigt says.
One reason that manufacturers’ recovery rates are often low is that they are calculated using the number of tires produced, not the number still on the road, notes Ron Medford, senior associate administrator for vehicle safety at the NHTSA, which has responsibility for tire recalls.
"Sometimes these tires are several years old when the recall is announced, and so many have been taken out of service already," he says. "Our recovery rates don’t reflect that."
Mr. Medford says the agency is looking for ways to improve the recovery rates and notes that the existing system would work better if more consumers filled out the registration cards that come with new tires. Only about 10% of tires are registered. Moreover, if a car is sold or its tires removed and resold separately, the tire registration is no longer able to link the manufacturer to the owner.
Critics say new radio-frequency technology — an automatic identification method that relies on storing and remotely retrieving data — could allow better tracking, but it isn’t available to average consumers. Some tires used on commercial trucks and airplanes, as well as all those used in Nascar races, have radio-frequency tags buried in them. Trucking companies use the system largely to alert them when a tire is old and needs to be changed, while Nascar uses it to make sure racing teams return tires to manufacturers after each race, because Nascar rules forbid the teams to keep the tires.
With a system like that, a tire shop or car dealer could use a hand-held device or other scanning equipment to quickly check the identity of a tire. If linked to a database that allowed searches based on tire numbers, it could be done in seconds. Of course, it raises privacy concerns, among other issues, and would require repair shops to have scanners.
"This technology is already out there, it’s just not filtering out to the light-truck and passenger tire side of the business," says Sean Kane, a researcher at Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Mass., firm that often works with plaintiffs attorneys.
The technology is being studied closely by the tire industry. A spokesman for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which produces the tires with radio-frequency tags for Nascar, as well as some trucks, says radio-frequency technology "may hold the potential to improve product recalls, given the right conditions."
Cases like Mrs. Thorne’s are likel
y to keep pressure on the industry to come up with a solution. Ms. Thorne sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Continental Tire North America Inc., the U.S. arm of Germany’s Continental AG, as well as her local Ford dealer in state court in Montgomery. LaBarron Boone, her attorney, says they settled with Ford, Continental and the dealership. The jury ruled against Wal-Mart and ordered the retailer to pay Mrs. Thorne $4 million. A Wal-Mart spokesman says the retailer "respects the decision" and won’t appeal.