Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS)

Section 13 of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, required the Secretary of Transportation to mandate a warning system in new vehicles to alert operators when their tires are under inflated.

After extensive study, NHTSA determined that a direct tire pressure monitoring system should be installed in all new vehicles. In a "return letter" issued after meetings with the auto industry, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) demurred, claiming its cost-benefit calculations provided a basis for delaying a requirement for direct systems. The final rule, issued May 2002, would have allowed automakers to install ineffective TPMS and would have left too many drivers and passengers unaware of dangerously underinflated tires.

Public Citizen commented to NHTSA during the rulemaking process in support of the agency's determination that direct systems should be installed in all new vehicles (click here to read the comments). Public Citizen also sent a letter to John Graham, director of the OMB, outlining the problems with OMB's cost-benefit analysis and ties to the auto industry (click here to read the letter).

In June 2002, Public Citizen joined with other consumer safety groups to sue NHTSA because its final rule would have allowed manufacturers to choose to install either an effective (direct) system or an inferior (indirect) system. A year later, in August 2003, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered NHTSA to rewrite the rule, agreeing with Public Citizen and others, that NHTSA acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by writing a standard that would allow installation of a clearly faulty (indirect) system. 

Still, the agency dragged its feet for nearly a year, and the safety groups returned to the court in July 2004, asking it to order the recalcitrant agency to act. In April 2005, NHTSA issued a rule requiring automakers to install systems in all new passenger cars and trucks by the 2008 model year, beginning a phase-in with 2006 model year vehicles.

The new rule, however, does not meet the requirements set by Congress and would allow for motorists to ride on dangerously underinflated tires.  The systems under the new rule are to alert motorists if any tire falls 25 percent below the recommended inflation pressure. A key problem, though, is that the baseline by which the 25 percent will be measured will be dictated by the recommended tire pressure set by automakers. Because this recommendation is usually a range, and because the rule allows for a fudge factor of 2 pounds per square inch in the systems, this could allow some tires to be on the road at 30 percent underinflation or more before an alert is provided.

Additionally, the rule doesn’t require tire pressure monitoring systems to operate with replacement tires – a dangerous omission given that an estimated 61 percent of passenger and 54 percent of light truck mileage occurs on replacement tires.  Also, under the rule, systems need not measure tire pressure until a motorist has been driving between 30 and 60 miles per hour continuously for 20 minutes. This means that the system would be useless for someone who does a lot of city driving with attendant stops and starts.   There are systems that would provide more accurate information to motorists faster.

In June 2005, Public Citizen, along with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Pirelli and the Tire Industry Association, filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that the new rule is inadequate and should be overturned.

Click here to read the petition for review filed by Public Citizen and tire manufacturers protesting NHTSA's April 2005 final rule.

Click here to read the full text of the court's 8-2003 decision.

Click here to read Public Citizen's press release following the 2003 decision.

Click here to read the Center for Auto Safety's press release.

Press Coverage of 8-2003 decision

Click here to read "U.S. Court Rejects Tire Safety Rule" 8-7-03 New York Times article by Danny Hakim.

Click here to read "Tire pressure rule tossed: Appeals court tells safety agency to redo arbitrary and capricious regulation" 8-7-03 Detroit News article by Jeff Plungis.

Click here to read "Court overturns tire pressure rule" 8-7-03 Detroit Free Press article by Jocelyn Parker.