Spent some time a few weeks back at Goodyear's Commercial Tire Academy in Dallas, TX, immersing myself in lots of truck tire details. We all know how important tires are to the safe and cost-efficient operation of heavy trucks today ... but frankly, we just don't think about it that much. Tires are just so taken for granted, not just by truckers but by the driving public at large, that lots of bad things keep happening.
Remember the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle back in 2000? One reason Firestone tires were failing is that Ford recommended that owners run them under-inflated to improve the vehicle's stability. That violates one of the most basic rules of tire physics -- you MUST run them at the proper inflation or risk damaging the tire, leading to premature failure. Or how about the ongoing Chinese light truck debacle? Poorly constructed, unsafe tires enjoy brisk sales because they are cheap -- and now NHTSA is trying to get the distributor to recall them, without much luck.
Roy Sutfin, general manager-service for Goodyear's commercial division, nailed this disconnect dead on during my Dallas visit: "People will spend $200 or more on a pair of shoes in a heartbeat, without a second thought, but then turn around and try to find the cheapest tires possible for their vehicles," he told me. "Look, from a safety perspective, what's more important here? Designer footwear or what your vehicle is riding on when you are going 65 mph on the highway? Tires are what your family is riding on and, for truckers, what supports your business. They are extremely important, yet we don't treat them as such."
Look at how we take care of tires. An analysis of 1,000 vehicle inspections forms gathered by the Car Care Alliance from 16 states back in January found that 20% of those vehicles had improperly inflated tires, with 11% running on tread so worn out the tires needed replacement. Look at all the 'gators' you see driving down the road. Most of that rubber isn't from recaps, as most truckers know, but from new tire failures due to chronic underinflation -- tires than can cost upwards of $350 per unit, but that we can't seem to keep properly inflated so they'll last 500,000 miles or more.
Truck tires, especially, are built to take a lot of punishment because the OEMs know how much they'll suffer over their lifespan. As part of my tire academy visit, I followed around Stan Zucchenlli and Gerald Mike Stout, two longtime tire salemen, as they conducted a tire inspection on a truck and trailer. One of the trailer tires we looked at, from the details branded on its sidewall, was made in 1998 -- almost NINE years old, yet there it was, properly inflated and ready for business. Sure, trailer tires are designed to roll for many years, but that still was an impressive sight.
Yet inpsecting truck and trailer tires every day -- especially measuring inflation pressure -- is no easy thing and the 100-degree Dallas summer weather made the trailer part of the inspection (the truck stood parked in a nice air conditioned maintenance bay) a nasty business. It typically takes about 18 minutes to check the air pressure on all of a tractor-trailer's 18 tires and it can get to be an irritating daily chore in a hurry, no doubt -- one reason why those tire 'thumpers' are still around. (Like you can accurately gauge air pressure by hitting a tire -- like seeing if the oil level is OK by thumping the truck's hood. NOT!)
Still, these tires support the whole vehicle as it rolls down the road, have a big impact on overall fuel economy, and are what stops your tractor-trailer when you hit the brakes. Sure, the brakes stop the wheel from moving, but it's the TIRE that's connecting the vehicle to the road -- and if those tires fail in a panic stop situation, your rims won't have the grip necessary to even slow down much less stop your rig.
Tires are important -- we all know that. It's just that we need to put more of that 'knowing' into practice every day. That's what will keep truckers safe and save them money, too.