After Nearly Five Years, NHTSA Finally Requires Automakers to Install Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems

April 7, 2005

After Nearly Five Years, NHTSA Finally Requires Automakers to Install Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

After far too many years, the federal government finally has issued a rule requiring automakers to install tire pressure monitoring systems that are effective in alerting motorists if any tire on the vehicle is underinflated.

It shouldn’t have taken this long. Underinflated tires lead to death and injury; it is estimated that the rule will save 120 lives and prevent 8,400 injuries annually. With the passage of the TREAD Act in the fall of 2000, Congress required the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to set guidelines for tire pressure monitoring systems within a year. The agency in the spring of 2002 issued a weak rule allowing for a system that wouldn’t function when two tires on the same side of the vehicle were underinflated. The system had other weaknesses and would have been of little help to motorists.

Public Citizen, the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Auto Safety sued in June 2002 to force the agency to revise the rule to ensure that motorists would be adequately alerted when their tire pressure dropped to dangerous levels. In 2003, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered the government to strengthen the rule to cover each tire on the vehicle.

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. Today, 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 systems are to alert motorists if any tire falls 25 percent below the recommended inflation pressure. While the rule is not perfect, it is an important first step:

  • The rule doesn’t require the systems to fully operate with replacement tires – a potentially dangerous omission, given that tires wear out and inevitably are replaced. Under the rule, a malfunction light will come on to alert motorists that the system is not working with the tires.
  • Safety groups asked for the agency to require tire pressure to be measured after the first 10 minutes of driving and alert motorists if a tire is 20 percent underinflated; the agency requires no less than 20 minutes and 25 percent underinflation.
  • The systems need not measure tire pressure until a motorist has driven between 30 and 60 miles per hour continuously for 20 minutes.
  • The rule allows for a phase-in schedule, with systems required to be installed in 20 percent of model year 2006 vehicles, 70 percent of model year 2007 vehicles and all model year 2008 vehicles.
  • The system will cost manufacturers roughly $48-$70 per vehicle to install but will save consumers $30-$35 total because properly inflated tires lead to better fuel efficiency, longer tread life and fewer crashes.

The rule is long overdue and likely would have been issued earlier had it not been for the auto industry lobbying the Bush administration. It is incomprehensible that it required five years and litigation to force the agency to do its job. NHTSA should write rules faster and craft them in a fashion that best protects motorists — as opposed to looking out for the automakers’ bottom lines.

*Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.

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