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Rejection of Sound Rule on Tire Pressure Monitoring Exhibits Flawed Reasoning, Ignores Safety Data

March 11, 2002

Rejection of Sound Rule on Tire Pressure Monitoring Exhibits Flawed Reasoning, Ignores Safety Data

White House Official Has Conflict of Interest

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal government official who blocked a strong rule that would enable motorists to be warned of low tire pressure used seriously flawed reasoning that will help the auto industry cut corners at the expense of public safety, Public Citizen said today.

In a letter sent today to John Graham, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook excoriated Graham for insisting the agency permit either an indirect or direct tire pressure monitoring system, instead of only a direct system. Direct systems are far more effective than indirect systems and were proposed as a rule by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after extensive research in its final rule.

Congress in 2000 directed NHTSA to issue a tire pressure monitoring rule after the much publicized deaths and injuries caused in crashes involving shred-prone Firestone tires. When tire pressure is low, tires experience more wear and tear, leading to failure. The idea was to require manufacturers to equip vehicles with systems allowing consumers to see when their tires are underinflated.

“I find it difficult to believe, with all your emphasis on ?sound science,? that your office has returned a rule based on . . . pure speculation and infirm logic,” Claybrook wrote to Graham. “[Y]ou have blocked an overdue, lifesaving rule required by Congress in the wake of the nation?s most publicized tire safety disaster because, in your view, NHTSA must permit industry to install a marginally cheaper, but far less accurate and beneficial, type of tire pressure monitoring system.”

Further, Graham has a conflict of interest because of his close ties with the auto industry, Claybrook wrote. Graham, who was confirmed to his government job last year after a tense nomination battle, previously was the director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which received money from Ford, Volvo, General Motors, and the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. Graham?s decision on the tire rule mirrors the reasoning of the Alliance.

Direct tire pressure monitoring systems measure the pressure of all four tires and provide consistent and accurate results to the driver. Indirect systems measure differences in the rotational speed of tires, so they work only if one tire is more than 25 percent less inflated than the others. Indirect systmes do not work at all if all four tires are equally underinflated, which is likely if all four were purchased at the same time, and do not work unless the vehicle is moving. Indirect systems are cheaper for manufacturers to install than direct systems.

NHTSA recommended a direct system after conducting research and testing, receiving 191 comments and holding at least 20 meetings with auto industry representatives and technical experts. On Feb. 13, Graham issued a “return letter” rejecting the agency?s proposal. At a Feb. 28 congressional hearing, he said that he would soon announce that a requirement for a direct system would be delayed to give NHTSA more time to study the matter.

Graham contended that because indirect systems are available only on vehicles with antilock brakes, requiring indirect systems would save more lives because more vehicles would have to have antilock brakes than today. However, installing a direct system would cost consumers less than installing both an indirect system and antilock brakes, Claybrook said in the letter. Further, the statistical evidence is sketchy as to whether antilock brakes on cars save lives, she said.

“[T]he breach of normal statistical practice you commit by relying on statistically insignificant data has devastating consequences for the validity of your conclusions,” Claybrook wrote. Without Graham?s obstructionist tactics, the country would in a few years have a fleet of vehicles equipped with direct systems made affordable because they were being mass produced. The capacity to monitor all four tires could trigger a sea change in tire safety, she said.

NHTSA has calculated that installing direct systems would cost consumers $66 per vehicle and would prevent 10,635 injuries and 79 deaths each year when fully implemented. An indirect system with antilock brakes would cost $253 and would fail to prevent 4,050 of those injuries and 30 of those deaths, the agency said. The real numbers would probably be worse because consumers using the less-reliable indirect systems, which fail to indicate which tires are underinflated, would quickly disregard the warnings, Claybrook said. She also said that indirect systems would have a net cost that is only slightly less.

“It is far past time, as you promised at your nomination hearing, to leave behind your role as industry advocate and try on your civil servant hat,” Claybrook wrote. “My hope is that you will review our objections with more care than it appears you have allocated to NHTSA?s well-developed position requiring direct monitoring systems, and that sound science exercised in its true form — with humility — as well as the interests of public health and democracy, will ultimately prevail.”

To view the letter, click here.

Note: Claybrook will testify at 2 p.m. Tuesday before the House Committee on Government Reform?s Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs. She will speak about how key health and safety rules are being stymied by the Bush administration.