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Still no rating system for tires

Makers say use of claims data is misleading

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WASHINGTON — The government has five-star rating systems to determine how vehicles hold up in crashes and how likely they are to roll over. Consumers looking for similar guidance on tires will come up empty because there is no standard to determine which tires are safe and which might fail.

As part of their investigation of Firestone tires linked to 203 U.S. traffic deaths, congressional investigators have used claims data collected by tire companies in an effort to rate tires.

Tiremakers say it is misleading to draw conclusions about safety from the data, and the investigators acknowledge it is imperfect because companies use different methods to collect, categorize and respond to claims.

To start with, there is no standard definition of a "claim." It usually includes consumer complaints to the manufacturer and requests for reimbursement because a faulty tire damaged their vehicle or other property or caused an injury.

But a claim could be filed for a tire that suddenly loses its tread at 60 mph or for a tire that deflates after running over a nail.

"A claim is just that — it is an assertion," said Donald Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association. "It is not proof positive of anything. Any company with any 800 number will tell you that they will get claims. Some of them are legitimate. Some of them are not."

A manufacturer may settle a claim to make a customer happy without ever investigating whether the product was at fault.

The government often looks at claims data when examining the safety of all kinds of products. When it comes to tires, though, there is no benchmark to determine what indicates a problem tire.

"I don't believe that we have exactly reached an understanding of a number — a single number that would be appropriate to use as an indicator of when to trigger a defect investigation," Michael Jackson, deputy transportation secretary, told lawmakers at a hearing on the issue last month.

Under a law passed last year in response to the Firestone accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must develop a uniform system for tire makers to gather claims data and begin collecting it.

Claims data can be an indicator of a safety problem.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. decided to recall 6.5 million tires last summer after seeing high claims rates on some of its tires. Ford Motor Co. considered claims data along with other factors when it announced in May it would replace 13 million other Firestone tires on its vehicles.

The Firestone Wilderness AT tires that Ford is replacing have a claims rate of nine per million tires produced, according to Bridgestone/Firestone. The ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires that Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled last year have a rate of 14 claims per million, the company said.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. spokesman Chuck Sinclair said his company long has used claims data as part of its safety monitoring. When company officials see an increase in claims, they take a closer look at the product to see if there is a defect.

Tire companies and automakers also conduct lab and driving tests to check for safety problems.

Until last, year Bridgestone/Firestone did not use claims data to look for defects, relying instead on warranty data, which includes reports of accidents where vehicle damage occurred. The tire maker says its failure to use claims data was a mistake. It now uses claims and warranty data to track safety problems.