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A number of outlets have reported that a blown tire is to blame for a Megabus crash that killed one and injured nearly 50 others. The blowout and crash occurred on I-55 in Litchfield, Illinois – about an hour north of St. Louis, Missouri. The bus was headed from Chicago to Kansas City.

The driver lost control of the bus when the blowout occurred, crashing head-on into a bridge pillar. The young woman killed was seated in the front row of the bus on the upper level, directly above the driver.

Defects in vehicles of all sizes can lead to accidents with horrific consequences. Tires are a key safety feature not only on buses, but also on passenger cars, trucks, SUVs, and commercial vehicles. Tires can have many hidden dangers a motorist may never know about. Tires can have a variety of manufacturing defects. For example, contaminants like moisture, dirt, grease, or oil may accumulated on component surfaces and prevent proper chemical reactions from occurring. Air may become trapped within the tire and interfere with adhesion between the rubber components and steel belts. Wood chips or plastic may be present in the tire depending on the vulcanization process. Steel belts may be positioned improperly, which creates stresses at the belt edge. It may be difficult or completely impossible for a motorist to detect these defects before a catastrophic blowout occurs.

In addition, many motorists do not know that tires have an expiration date. While tires have a limited life span, tire makers have made it very difficult to know either when the tire was manufactured or the date after which the tire should not be used.

Tire manufacturers must provide the date on which the tire was manufactured, but not the date by after which the tire should not be used. To make matters worse, the "born-on" date is provided using a cryptic code that most consumers – and even many tire installers – are unable to accurately read and, until only recently, were placed on the inside wall of the tire making it very difficult to even find.

How do you know if your tires are too old? Experts have warned that tires more than six years old can fail catastrophically. In other words, the brand new tires that you just installed could blow out and lead to severe injury or death if they are simply too old. In spite of mounting pressure, tire manufacturers have been reluctant to issue expiration dates. It is possible that tires may wear out well before the expiration date with wear and exposure to a host of other factors that affect the useful life of a tire. For instance, exposure to heat, sunlight, ozone, etc. will all shorten the lifespan of a tire, even if there is plenty of tread remaining. Spare tires are particularly at risk, because they can sit in the trunk of a car for years without replacement. However, if your tires are in otherwise good condition, consumer safety analysts recommend changing your tires before they reach six years of age.

So now that you know that tires need to be replaced after 6 years, how can you find out how old your tires actually are? Although tire manufacturers are required to stamp the date of manufacture for each tire, it might not be immediately obvious where to locate such information on the tire sidewall. In order to determine the age of your tires, has posted the following guidelines:

Each tire has a required Department of Transportation (DOT) number imprinted on at least one of its sidewalls. That number begins with the letters "DOT" and may contain up to 12 additional numbers and letters. The first and last digits are the most important.

  • The first two letters or numbers identify the manufacturer of the tires.
  • Prior to the year 2000, the last 3 digits of a DOT number represented the week (2 digits) and the year (1 digit) of production. So if the last three digits are 408, the tire was produced in the 40th week of the 8th year of the decade. There was no universal identifier that confirmed which decade in which the tire was manufactured (however, tires produced in the 1990s may have a small triangle following the Tire Identification Number).
  • Tires produced after January 1, 2000, have a 4-digit date code at the end of the DOT number. The first 2 digits represent the week of production and the last 2 digits represent the last 2 digits of the year of production. So, 5107 indicates the tire was produced in the 51st week of the year 2007.

While tires should be designed and manufactured to avoid a blowout, automotive designers must also design stability into their vehicles and ensure that the vehicles are maneuverable after a blowout. A blowout should not be a death sentence. The most notable tire/stability problem occurred in the Ford Explorer.

A number of bus crashes have led to calls for greater oversight to ensure passenger safety. In September 2010, another Megabus wreck killed four passengers when the bus slammed into a low bridge. In May 2010, 15 people were killed when a bus left I-94 in New York City and was sliced in half. Two days later, a bus drove off the New Jersey Turnpike and struck a bridge pillar, killing two people.

Whether your are a commercial driver or passenger driver, tires are the only thing connecting your vehicle to the road. Make sure you take adequate precautions to keep, your passengers, and your loved ones safe.

[More on Defective Tires]

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(c) Copyright 2012 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

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