Cheap-tire addiction might kill you, even if your car rides on the best that money can buy
“I just want you to know… that I’m going to go to your funeral and make a horse-laughing noise all the way through the service. You are too stupid to hold this job.”
The year was 1999 and your humble author was working in the dingy basement office of a 1950s-era hospital with two other “UNIX dudes.” The first one—let’s call him Scott, because that was his name—was a 40-something fellow who’d come in from mainframes. The second— Greg—was a preternaturally intelligent and horrifyingly unsocialized fellow who had grown up in a house trailer 50 miles from the nearest city but who had nonetheless taught himself everything from C-language programming to Socratic questioning from books he’d found in a nearby landfill.
The three of us spent most of the day arguing about completely meaningless things, and the Topic of the Day was geographical accident frequency. I’d mentioned that most accidents (52 percent, from the most recent statistics) occur within five miles of home. Scott promptly suggested that this was due to drivers paying less attention in familiar surroundings. Greg heard this and went nuts. “You moron,” he screamed, because as technical people we had never received any effective training on how feelings outweigh facts in corporate life, “any possible plotting distribution would show you that most people spent the highest duration of time within five miles of their house. This is frequency-related, NOT HUMAN FACTORS RELATED!”
Well, at that point all three of us bum-rushed the whiteboards to start making our cases. I was on Greg’s side for this one, but Scott wouldn’t budge. Finally, Greg decided to appeal to Scott using the simplest possible test: “Scott, you have to drive from Los Angeles to your home in Grove City, Ohio. It’s 2500 miles. You can either wear your seatbelt for the first 2495 miles or for the last five. Which would you pick?”
“The last five, obviously.” Which caused Greg to screech out the line that begins this column. It was a full day before Greg and Scott could be civil to each other, and two more days before we could all eat lunch together, and three months before Scott could leave the office without Greg saying:
“Don’t forget to put your seatbelt on when you get to Grove City.” When I had lunch with Greg 11 years after the fact, he said to me, “I hope you put on your seatbelt when you got close to the restaurant.” Greg’s hyper-logical mind couldn’t accept Scott’s inability to understand the generation of statistics. His mind also couldn’t remember where he put the keys to my four-speed Plymouth Colt, but that’s a story for another time.
Let’s talk about another aspect of motor vehicle fatalities—those oh-so-scary “distracted-driving” deaths caused by cell phones. I have a healthy contempt for the way those statistics are collected, because they rely on a quick off-the-cuff judgment by police at the accident scene, and it’s easier to blame a phone than to thoroughly investigate the crash. Still, the NHTSA tells us that about 400 deaths a year are due to cell phone use. That’s pretty bad, right? It must be. After all, we are treating “distracted driving” like it’s smallpox or something. It’s being used to justify a witches’ brew of privacy-invading measures up to and including having cameras in your own car that watch and record you while you drive. What on God’s green earth could be more dangerous than DISTRACTED DRIVING?
Wait a minute… I’ve found something. Tire failures are deadlier than distracted driving. Almost twice as deadly, according to NHTSA data. And given that it’s far easier to infer a tire failure as the cause of an accident than it is to figure out whether the cell phone in a driver’s lap was actually being used, I’m guessing that the disparity is even more severe than that.
What’s causing these tire failures? That’s where we leave my old friend Greg’s safe ground of statistics and wander into Scott’s land of speculation. This much I know: Modern tires from European and American facilities are almost immune to failure. It takes a black-swan event like Ford’s choice of 235-width instead of 225-width Firestones, coupled with some unusual tire-pressure recommendations and a 1970s-era truck platform, to create a real problem with modern tires from our mainline manufacturers. I’ve personally observed tens of thousands of laps done on racetracks with today’s street tires, and I’m aware of one failure—a pair of blowouts on a Kumho V720-equipped Viper ACR, at the Nurburgring. That V720 was infamous in the business for being a very special-purpose tire designed for a very specific use case that didn’t include 170-mph corners.
If everyday tires don’t fail, then why are we seeing so many tire deaths? Some of them are no doubt due to age and condition. This was less of an issue 30 years ago, when replacement Michelins for my VW Fox were $47 each. Today’s massive SUVs and crossovers often arrive in showrooms wearing $2500 or more worth of rubber. Their buyers are stretched to the limit by the lease payments, and they are lulled into complacency by the size, ride height, and quietness of their new vehicles, so they will often run them right now to effective baldness. A 10-year-old tire with 1/8th-inch tread remaining is not as safe as it was at the time of manufacture. Even so, they’re unlikely to fail. They’re just more likely to send you skidding off the road when it rains or snows.
There’s a bigger problem out there, and it’s this: The past decade has seen a hurricane of no-brand tires imported into the United States from China and other low-cost producers. The change in volume has been so significant that the U.S. International Trade Commission launched an investigation in 2016 to see if China was illegally subsidizing tire sales into this country—an investigation which ended with a whimper instead of a bang because there wasn’t enough information to make a decisive finding.
You all remember the Explorer/Firestone debacle that ended with significant penalties being paid by Bridgestone/Firestone and with a massive recall and replacement of tires. Well, imagine if it had been Guizhou Tyre Co., or Double Coin Tire, which are two of the many Chinese importers. What would have happened? Could American customers have gotten satisfaction from two firms based soup-to-nuts outside the reach of American law?
The answer, of course, is “haha, no,” which is why Ford doesn’t put Double Coins on new Explorers today. But that doesn’t stop a tremendous number of cash-and-credit-strapped Explorer owners from choosing a $63 Chinese no-brand instead of the $389 OEM replacement when it’s time to put on that first set of replacements. In a heartbeat, you’ve degraded your $48,000 SUV from a comprehensively-tested mechanical unit to what Donald Rumsfield called an “unknown unknown.” You’re asking the stability and traction control systems of your vehicle to compensate for tires that may behave in a radically different fashion under stress and load. In short, you’ve just made a choice that is possibly riskier than driving down the freeway while watching YouTube on your phone.
As a Hagerty reader, and an auto enthusiast, you probably know the difference between first-rate OEM replacement tires, or even stellar aftermarket choices like the “Hoosierstone” RE-71, and the low-cost junk being sold at your local tire installer—but the average buyer has no idea. And Chinese manufacturers are capitalizing on this, producing tires that are visually near-duplicates of traditional choices like the Bridgestone KO2. They look about the same. How could anyone but an experienced auto-industry veteran know that they are not the same? Can you tell the difference between a KitchenAid dishwasher made in Ohio and a no-brand Chinese dishwasher that looks pretty much the same? If you can’t, what makes you think that non-enthusiasts can discern the difference between a $63 tire and a $389 tire?
“Geez, Jack, calm down.” I can hear my readers already. “I’m running N-spec tires on my 987 Cayman. What does this have to do with me?” Well, you might be running the right tire—but the cars and trucks all around you probably aren’t, the same way that your responsible decision not to play Fortnite while driving doesn’t insulate you from the consequences of being struck by the battle-royale champion in the Yukon Denali next to you. We all share the risks of cheap tires, even if we don’t buy ’em.
Incidentally, getting rid of substandard tires is much easier, as a legislative and technical issue, than getting rid of cell phone distraction. There’s no law that says we have to let substandard tires—or any tires—into this country. President Trump is raising tariffs on these products, which may cause the economics majors in this audience a bit of heartburn, but it certainly decreases the incentives to buy an inferior and potentially unsafe product. We could also increase the amount of testing done in order to obtain DOT certification, while imposing random portside tests on overseas-sourced tires, with the costs borne by the importers. Last but not least, we could empower police officers to check, and issue citations regarding, tire tread depth and condition in every roadside stop. Heck, you could have parking enforcers do it. They keep citing me for a missing front plate on my 911; they could just as easily be checking the tread depth or DOT age stamp.
All of these proposals require much less effort than putting nannycams and cell phone frequency blockers in every new automobile, and they would immediately improve the safety of many more vehicles. The fact that our governing authorities appear to be extremely interested in monitoring your cell phone use in a car, but they are completely uninterested in the safety of the tires on that car… well, that should get you thinking a little bit about their motives.
Before we put on our tinfoil hats, however, I’ll close by saying this: You should make sure that you’re running major-brand tires of appropriate age and condition on all of your vehicles. It can be a hard pill to swallow—I’m not looking forward to replacing the Eagle GTs on the aforementioned 911 due to age, even though their tread still looks brand new. But it’s the safest and smartest thing to do. And if you don’t care? Well, as Greg might say, it’s your funeral. But there won’t be anyone laughing.