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Zurik: Drivers playing high-stakes "Road Roulette" with dangerous tires

This Ridgewood Prep bus carries high school football players down Airline Drive in Metairie; the DOT code for one of its tires, made in the 33rd week of 2000, is superimposed at the bottom of this image. This Ridgewood Prep bus carries high school football players down Airline Drive in Metairie; the DOT code for one of its tires, made in the 33rd week of 2000, is superimposed at the bottom of this image.

Many drivers don't even think about their car or truck tires until they have a flat. Others may keep a close eye on the condition of their tires' tread.

But a cross-country investigation by FOX 8 and our Raycom affiliates found far too many tires on the roads that are well past their prime. And they pose a deadly risk – to their drivers and everyone else on the road.

When high school football players board a bus to ride to their Friday evening game, the age of the bus tires may be one of the last things on their minds.

FOX 8 discovered and documented a local high school team riding a bus with tires as are as old as some of the players - almost 15 years old.

“That's very dangerous,” warns Matt Wetherington, an attorney and founder of the Atlanta-based Tire Safety Group. “These tires pose a threat to everyone who is inside of the vehicle, and everyone who has to share the road with that vehicle.”

When we notified the school, they never answered our questions. Instead, they even deleted one our emails.

“A 14-year-old tire should not be on any vehicle, anywhere in America,” Wetherington says, “and in particular, not a school bus.”

This tire safety advocate says, conservatively, schools should remove all front bus tires after six years. But Wetherington says under no scenario should a tire be on the front of a bus longer than 10 years. In fact, one commercial tire company, Saffiro, recommends replacement of all tires more than eight years old.

“An aged tire is nothing more than a ticking time bomb,” Wetherington says.

That football team has been riding on at least three aged tires. The bus belongs to Ridgewood Preparatory School in Jefferson Parish. The bus has three tires made in the year 2000.

“Yeah, that's unacceptable,” says auto repair shop owner Chuck Hamback when we tell him about those bus tires.

Hamback, who owns Smiling Chuck's Auto Repair in New Orleans, says he finds plenty of vehicles with old tires, and not just buses.

“You're not just putting yourself at risk,” he says. “Six years is the given shelf life of a tire, okay? You can put a tire on the shelf and it might not be dry-rotted, might not be anything visibly wrong with it. But you put it on a car - number one killer of tires is heat.”

Most car companies agree.

“General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan – they all say remove tires after six years, regardless of tread, because they represent an increased risk for failure,” says Sean Kane, who runs another safety advocacy group, Safety Research & Strategies in Rhode Island. He also gets paid to consult with attorneys bringing accident claims against the tire industry.

“No one is saying, at six years and one day, your tires are going to fail,” Kane says. “But at six years, those tires represent a much increased risk. And that is based in science, that is based on the studies that have been done.”

Finding out how old your tire actually is can be tricky.

Our undercover team went into several used tire stores in the New Orleans area. A few employees didn't even know how to tell the age.

“That's one thing I don't know,” one staffer told our reporters. “We buy them… basically I go by the rubber.”

Here's how you can tell. Each tire made after 2003 has a U.S. Department of Transportation code – a string of 10-12 letters and numerals following the letters “DOT.” And at the end of that code are four numerals – the two digits for the week of the year the tire was made, and two digits for the year itself.

We went searching around the New Orleans area.

  • We found a Toyota Camry at the Audubon Zoo with tires from 2007, seven years old.
  • In Hammond, a used car dealer had a car on the lot with a tire from 2006, eight years old.
  • In the parking lot at FOX 8 in New Orleans, we found a 10-year-old tire.
  • We found another 10-year-old tire on a vehicle in Plaquemines Parish.
  • And in Slidell, a Ford F-150 included a tire from 2001.

According to Ford's owners manual, “Tires should be replaced after six years, regardless of tread wear."

“It is truly the invisible hazard,” Kane says.

He says the federal government has enabled this problem, by failing to study tire age and by failing to stamp an expiration date on tires.

But the National Transportation Safety Board finally has gotten involved, launching an investigation into a February accident here in Louisiana. 30 high school baseball players and coaches were injured and four people in an SUV died in St. Mary Parish after the tread on a 10-year-old tire on the SUV separated, causing the driver to spin out and slam into the school bus.

Overall, Kane says he's documented more than 300 crashes where people were hurt or killed as a result of tires more than six years old.

“Chronological age is not really a concern that consumers should have,” says Dan Zielinski, who handles public relations for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. “They should be concerned about their maintenance, how they use the tire and how it's stored.”

Tire companies make up the RMA. The association sets no expiration date on tires. Still, five of the association's eight members do recommend replacing a passenger tire after 10 years.

“A 10-year-old tire can be perfectly safe if it's been properly used and maintained,” Zielinski insists. “A one-year-old tire can be an accident waiting to happen.”

At the Young Audiences Charter School in Gretna, we found two buses with front tires from 2001. Another bus at that school was driving on a tire with a substantial gash in it.

We reached out to Young Audiences, and a spokesperson says they were unaware of the old tires. They plan to investigate.

But over at Ridgewood Prep, the football team is still driving around on almost-15-year-old tires. Nearly a month after we sent our first email, the school has failed to replace the tires. Instead, when we sent a follow-up email two weeks ago, it was deleted from the head of school's email account.

Tire experts say not replacing those tires could be putting those students in danger.

“You're talking about teenage tires, in some cases, being the key safety component… for teenagers on the bus,” Wetherington says.

“One tire goes, that upsets the stability of the bus,” Hamback notes. “God knows what happens.”

Again, many passenger car companies tell you to change your tires no later than six years after their production. The experts we interviewed say the data regarding commercial tires and age is lacking. That's one reason why Wetherington suggests changing commercial tires no later than 10 years.

Copyright 2014 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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