In 2011, Bhutanese refugee Kharka Chhetri was traveling in a van on Interstate 75, just north of Macon, when the vehicle’s rear tire suffered a tire tread separation, hit a median and flipped over, killing Chhetri and one other passenger.
Chhetri’s family was ultimately awarded $16.5 million by a DeKalb County jury that found Michelin North America, which owns the company that made the tire in question, liable for defective design of the rear tire that caused the fatal crash.
Although Michelin officials were aware of a flaw in the design, the company had failed to do anything about it.
The Chhetri case demonstrates the danger of tire-tread separation, which occurs when the rubber tread separates from a tire’s steel belt. Rubber and steel do not adhere naturally, so a chemical process is required to encourage the two materials to stick together. When the chemical process fails — because of a design defect or a problem with the chemical itself — the results can be catastrophic.
Unfortunately, the Chhetri incident is not an isolated event. According to the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 400 deaths, 10,000 injuries and 8,000 crashes are linked to defective tires each
year. Since the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1996 passed, more than 24 million tires have been recalled because of various manufacturing and design defects.
Tire-tread separation is fundamentally different from a blowout, which occurs when the tire explodes from a weakness or defect in the sidewall. During a tread separation, the tread literally peels off the tire, and the tire falls apart.
The danger lies in the fact that the driver typically loses control of the vehicle because the tread separation causes a car or truck to oversteer, which can result in catastrophic injury.
A number of issues can contribute to tire-tread separation. Some manufacturers have a poor inspection process, which allows faulty tires to enter the market even though the inner lining of the tire is dangerously thin.
Other companies have been exposed for allowing debris to enter the raw materials during tire production. In addition, some companies manufacture flawed designs, resulting in defective tires being sold to unsuspecting consumers.
Tire-tread separation tends to be more common in hot, humid climates, where rubber degrades more quickly. So how can drivers protect themselves from tire-tread separation on the road? Fortunately, drivers can take several steps to reduce the risk of tread separation.
1. Check tire wear. Keep an eye on your tires and take note of tread that is excessively worn or damaged. Look for cracks or cuts in the sidewall, uneven or excessive tread wear and bulges or blisters.
Check tires for bumps or other deformations with careful visual inspection and by feeling the tread with your hand. In addition, inexpensive tread-wear gauges are available at most auto parts stores. Have your tires routinely checked during vehicle servicing.
2. Listen for unusual noises. Tire-tread separation can be preceded by a bumping or a thumping sound, which is a cue that the tread is starting to come apart from the tire. Keep an ear out for strange or unusual rhythmic sounds, which can be an indicator that tread separation is imminent.
3. Seek professional assistance. If you suspect your tires might be defective, seek professional assistance immediately. Consider filing a complaint with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which investigates reports, tracks complaints and identifies defect trends within certain types, sizes and brands.
Stephen G. Lowry is a partner with the law firm of Harris Penn Lowry LLP. He and his law firm handle numerous trucking-related claims. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 912-651-9967.