Legal Systems_Chinese Tires

Everything from toothpaste to toys to all terrain

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everything from toothpaste to toys to all-terrain vehicles rely on mom-and-pop outfits much like FTS to import products from China. In most cases, the federal government expects these firms to monitor and test goods for possibly dangerous defects. But the reality is that many small importers have limited resources and testing capabilities, and face only minimal requirements to perform tests. Kuskin, for his part, acknowledges that though his company tested tires, until the recent crisis the process was random. "It's so important for U.S. manufacturers and importers to test and inspect anything they buy overseas," says Sally Greenberg, a senior counsel with Consumers Union. "It's not so cheap to source to China when you have these quality issues." Kuskin began buying tires from Hangzhou Zhongce in 1990, and has been riding the Chinese import wave ever since. The number of Chinese tires imported to the U.S. has grown quickly in recent years, growing fivefold to 32 million a year, or about 10% of the market, since 2000. Most are cheap replacement tires that sell for $100 or less. A company like fts typically approves the manufacturer's design and mandates certain specifications. fts sells to wholesalers, which in turn supply retailers. A consumer can find tires made by Hangzhou Zhongce under brand names like Vesta, Goodride, and Chaoyang at outlets large and small. TIRE TESTING Kuskin seems shell-shocked, and gets defensive when telling his story. The 59-year-old entrepreneur is quick to say he's had only one other minor recall in 19 years. And though it didn't help, he expresses pride
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in the testing his company does, which he says involves driving tires for 40,000 miles for 40 days on hot Texas pavement. After that, the tires are sent to a lab, where they're analyzed for wear and breakdown. The test costs about $40,000, he says, and is not required by the Transportation Dept. "When these tires are made right," says Kuskin, "they're as good as any tire in the world." But clearly some of them weren't being made to FTS's specifications. The first sign of trouble came in October, 2005, when FTS spotted a "sharp increase" in consumer claims. Kuskin says he didn't hear about a single accident and argues that there were claims on only 0.5% of the tires. That may seem small, but one major tiremaker says it considers warranty claims on more than 0.5% of one model to be "on the high side," and even when the number exceeds 0.1% "it starts drawing attention." Kuskin says he submitted the data to NHTSA and that it didn't see an issue either. "I wasn't in tune to the fact that this could be a big problem," he says.
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