- The Washington Times - Friday, August 25, 2000

DETROIT Giving his 1993 Cadillac a gulp of gas, Sidney Jenkins found the question about his tire-maintenance regimen a bit curious.
"I just don't think much about it," said the 73-year-old Detroit man, content to have his tire pressure checked every few months when his car's oil is changed.
Even as a massive tire recall focuses more attention on tires widely considered the most neglected part of a vehicle industry officials say many drivers aren't paying enough heed to maintaining tires and keeping them properly inflated.
The cause of the tire failures forcing the recall has not been determined. But the question of tire pressure drew more scrutiny over the weekend, when trial lawyers investigating Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said Ford's recommendations for tire pressure on its Explorer sport utility vehicle might have played a role in the tire failures.
Federal regulators are investigating 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries that could be linked to the tires.
Ford denies that its recommended tire pressures are at fault.
So even for motorists vigilant about tire pressure, the issue can be confusing. Automakers and tire makers often offer differing information about inflation levels.
Both industries urge consumers to follow the automaker's guidelines inside the door or owner's manual not those on the tire's sidewall, which they say is the maximum.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have said they have not found the cause of the tread separations leading to Bridgestone/Firestone's recall of 6.5 million tires, most of which were installed on Ford trucks, notably the Explorer sport utility vehicle.
Still, safety advocates and tire makers are taking the opportunity to underscore that underinflation can put extra stress on tires, making them likelier to fail.
Proper tire upkeep could be especially important for the millions of owners of high-riding SUVs, which are tougher to control and more rollover prone when tires fail, said David Champion, head of automobile testing for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.
About 9,500 people die each year in rollover crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 60 percent of fatalities in SUVs and more than 40 percent of deaths in pickup trucks occur in rollovers, compared to 22 percent of car deaths.
Tire makers and safety advocates urge motorists to check their tire pressure monthly and also to look for bulges, cracks or uneven tread wear. Tires underinflated by 20 percent or just 6 psi for a tire with a 30 psi recommendation can pare tread life by 15 percent and use 10 percent more gas, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Keith Price said. Tire pressure often ebbs as a result of routine temperature changes and leaky valves.
In the case of the recalled tires, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone differed over the recommended pressure for the affected tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone suggested consumers fill 15-inch tires on Explorers to 30 pounds psi, while Ford has said a range of 26 to 30 psi was acceptable.
An internal 1989 Ford document released over the weekend by lawyers investigating Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone noted the Explorer failed safety tests and was a rollover risk when equipped with tires inflated to 35 pounds per square inch. Later tests found the SUV did not have that stability problem when tires were inflated to 26 psi, the level Ford has recommended since the Explorer went on sale in 1990.
Ford insists the 26 psi is a safe level.
Bridgestone/Firestone is probing whether customer care played any role in the reported problems with the questioned tires.
"I don't want to convey that we in any way are holding customers responsible," said John Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone's executive vice president. "All I'm saying is that it always has been and always will be important … for the driving public to take care of their tires."
Data made public by Ford and the tire maker shows higher failure rates in the specific recalled tire models, suggesting that driver neglect isn't a key factor since other models have much lower failure rates. And Tom Baughman, Ford's chief of truck engineering for North America, said there was no widespread sign of neglect on the Firestone tires in question.
Tire pressures for U.S. passenger vehicles must conform with a set of industry guidelines for the pressure range to which a tire and wheel supporting a given weight should be inflated. Ford has said the recalled Explorer tires meet Tire and Rim Association guidelines.
Engineers at Ford and other automakers say deciding on the right tire pressure for a vehicle isn't easy and that ride, handling, noise and fuel economy also must be considered. A higher pressure generally will be good for fuel economy and tire wear, but bad for ride and handling, and vice versa.

Check pressure monthly

The Tire Industry Safety Council, a trade group supported by North American tire and rubber makers, says motorists should consider the following in properly maintaining their tires:

• Benefits of tire care: Longer tread wear and greater fuel economy. Underinflation or overloading creates excessive heat and can lead to tire failure.

• Correct air pressure: Spelled out by the vehicle's maker on the vehicle's door edge, door post, glove-box door or fueling hatch. If your vehicle doesn't have a placard, check the owner's manual or consult with the vehicle manufacturer, tire maker or your tire dealer.

• When to check: At least once a month and before any long trip. Tires must be checked when they are cold, meaning before they have been run a mile. Also inspect tires at least once monthly for uneven tread wear, as well as for any stones, bits of glass, metal or other foreign objects wedged in the tread.

• How to check: All motorists should have an accurate tire-pressure gauge bought from tire dealers, auto-supply stores or other retailers. Visual inspections of tires can't accurately assess when tires are underinflated, and air meters at service stations may be inaccurate due to exposure or abuse.

• Good driving habits: Can positively affect tire mileage and safety. Should include observing posted speed limits, avoiding fast starts, stops and turns, potholes and objects on the road. Also don't run over curbs or hit the tire against the curb when parking.

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