Only about 1 in 5 defective tires is being removed from the road through the safety recall process, a federal accident investigations board said Tuesday.
The recall system is "broken" because manufacturers are unable to contact most tire owners to warn them, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Another 24 percent of recalled tires end up being taken off the road for other reasons, such as damage or normal wear and tear. But more than half — 56 percent — of recalled tires remain in use, the board said.
The problem is that there is no requirement for most tire dealers to register the tires they sell with the manufacturer, the board said. Most dealers don't take the time to do so, which makes it difficult for manufacturers to determine who owns the tires and to contact them.
Independent dealers — those not owned or controlled by tire makers — sell about 92 percent of the tires sold directly to consumers, the board said.
"Based on the work we did, that system is not working," said Rob Molloy, head of the board's highway safety investigations. "It is completely broken."
Investigators cited a crash involving a 15-passenger van in Lake City, Florida, last year. The van's driver felt a vibration and pulled over to the side of the road, but couldn't find any problem with the tires. Soon after he resumed driving, a tire failed, causing the van with nine passengers to careen off the road and roll over. Two people were killed and eight others injured.
The defect was on the inside of the tire and not visible. The tire had been recalled a year and a half earlier, but hadn't been registered with the manufacturer. The manufacturer had taken extra steps to determine who purchased the tire, but the recall notice was sent to an outdated address.
Consumers can register their tires directly with the manufacturer, but "few people are aware that tires must be registered so that they can be recalled if they are defective," Chris Hart, the safety board's chairman, said at a meeting to consider the report.
Investigators also were critical of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's tire recall website, saying consumers can easily become confused by the search process and come away believing their tires have not been recalled when in fact they were.
The four-member board unanimously approved 11 safety recommendations, including that the traffic safety administration seek authority from Congress to require registration of new tires. Registration should include the consumer's name, phone number, address, email address and the identification number of the car, the board said.
The safety board investigates accidents and makes recommendations, but cannot issue safety regulations. That's up to the traffic safety administration.
About 500 people are killed and 19,000 injured in 33,000 tire-related accidents annually. It's not possible to tell how many of those accidents were caused by recalled tires — as opposed to tires that hadn't been properly maintained — because police typically don't look for that information, investigators said.
There were 55 safety recall campaigns involving 3.2 million tires from 2009 to 2013, the board said.