U.S. Court Rejects Tire Safety Rule

8/7/02
By DANNY HAKIM

A panel of three federal judges rejected a proposed tire safety regulation yesterday, saying it allowed for too much error.

Two Bush administration agencies have disagreed over how to satisfy a Congressional demand to install tire pressure monitoring systems in cars and light trucks.


One agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was to come up with a rule to comply with the Tread Act, a law passed in 2000 in the wake of the deadly rollover problems experienced by Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.

The agency had proposed a rule that would have allowed automakers to choose between two monitoring systems, with one of them costing less but known to be effective only about half the time.

Consumer advocacy groups then challenged the agency's rule in court, saying it did not meet the law's requirements, and the judges agreed.

The rule would have allowed automakers to either install pressure sensors on all four tires — known as a direct monitoring system — or estimate tire pressure by tweaking the technology in antilock brake systems, available on more than half of new cars and trucks.

The second system, known as an indirect monitoring system, is only effective about half of the time, according to federal data cited in the ruling. The indirect system works by comparing the speeds of two diagonal wheels with the other two diagonal wheels. As a result, it does not know if all four tires are underinflated or if two tires on the same axle or the same side of the vehicle are underinflated.

"The record discloses that the added cost for a system that worked all of the time, rather than half of the time, was less than $10 per car," wrote Robert D. Sack, a judge at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, and one of the three federal judges on the panel.

The panel ordered the agency to come up with a new rule.

"This is almost a perfect decision for us," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a plaintiff and a frequent critic of the industry.

In a statement, Mr. Ditlow added, "This decision will block the pro-industry, anti-consumer, deregulatory campaign of the Bush administration."

Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said yesterday that the agency had not yet reviewed the ruling and could not comment.

Gloria J. Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbying group, said she had not seen the decision. But she said her group preferred a system that would let automakers pick among technologies.

She also said that the cost gap between the direct and indirect systems appeared to be wider than the federal breakdown cited in the court's ruling.

"While both tire monitoring systems provide comparable safety benefits to motorists," she said, "the direct system would cost consumers an additional $500 million each year. That's a half a billion dollars a year premium for comparable safety benefits."

Though the regulation came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the court ruling was more of a rebuke to the Office of Management and Budget. The agencies differed sharply on the course to take on tire pressure monitoring.

In February 2002, the budget office took the unusual step of rejecting a proposal on the matter from the highway safety administration as too costly. The traffic safety agency had planned to mandate that automobiles phase in direct systems by the model year 2007. But Dr. John Graham, the regulations administrator of the budget office, wrote a letter to the agency urging it to allow indirect systems, too, because he said they would encourage greater use of antilock brakes.

The highway safety administration subsequently submitted a rule that said both kinds of systems would be permissible in the short term and said that it would study what to do in the longer term.

"In light of the administrative record, which documents the relative shortcomings of currently available indirect systems, it was unreasonable for N.H.T.S.A. to adopt standards that allow automakers to install such systems in new motor vehicles," Judge Sack wrote, referring to the traffic safety administration.

"For each occasion on which an indirect system will detect the presence of one or more significantly underinflated tires, there will be an occasion on which it will fail to detect them," he added.

Copyright 2003, The New York Times Company