As in any other human endeavor, tire companies do sometimes make mistakes. Unlike many other human endeavors, tire manufacturing mistakes can kill people. That's why it's good to know that one thing the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) always does quite well is keep a sharp eye out for signs of defective tires out there on the highways. When it has evidence to show that a batch of tires is a safety issue, NHTSA will suggest, and if necessary force, a recall of the affected tires. When that happens, the manufacturer will attempt to contact all consumers with tires that are recalled, but between third-party sales and people (like me) who don't fill out tire warranty cards, it is an absolute certainty that not every consumer, and perhaps not even most consumers, can be notified by the tire company of an impending recall. Given that, it's generally not a good idea to rely on the tire company getting in touch with you to warn you of a recall, and it's generally a very good idea to be a little proactive about it yourself.
The first thing about tire recalls – you have to know that they exist at all, and very few people have the time to go searching for recalls on their tires. I have alerts sent to me by NHTSA notifying me of every tire recall that takes place. Trust me, you don't want to do that. The easiest way to be notified if your specific tires are under recall is to take a few minutes when you buy a set of tires to set up a Google Alert. Put in your tires' brand, make, size and “+recall” as a search term. (For example, “Michelin MXV4 225/45/18 +recall”) Set the alert for once a week. You shouldn't get anything unless your tires are actually recalled, in which case you should get multiple results as various media outlets report the recall.
Tire Identification Numbers and You
All recall notifications will include a range of dates that the tires in question were manufactured. To tell if your tires are among those being recalled, you will need to read the Tire Identification Number, or TIN. The TIN is an arcane piece of code embossed on your tire's sidewall. The only part of the TIN you really need to know about is the part that tells you the date of manufacture, which appears as four numbers indicating the week and year the tire was built, i.e. the number 1210 means the tire was made in the 12th week of 2010. Although the NHTSA will give only date ranges, you can use a week-of-the-year calculator to translate those date ranges to actual TINs, or you can read this site, as I will always be giving actual TIN's when I report a recall.
The complete TIN is only required to be embossed on one side of the tire, and a partial TIN can be set on the other sidewall. However, for some insanely bad reason the partial TIN does not contain the one piece of information that is actually useful to you, the consumer – the date of manufacture. If you have directional tires this means that it is almost certain that you will have to take two wheels off the car to see the full TIN on the inboard sidewalls. This will probably not be the case with asymmetrical tires, which have designated inner and outer sidewalls.
Replacing Recalled Tires
For details about replacing tires under recall, call the number that will be provided in the recall alerts, contact NHTSA, or check online at safercar.gov. In most cases, the tire manufacturer should pay for the labor of dismounting the recalled tire and mounting the replacement for you. Drive away in a safer car!