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But for tires without that, a code of "328" could be from the 32nd week of 1988 — or 1978.

Clearly, these DOT numbers weren't designed with the consumer in mind.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association says there is no way to put a date on when a tire "expires," because such factors as heat, storage and conditions of use can dramatically reduce the life of a tire. Heat: NHTSA research has found that tires age more quickly in warmer climates.

NHTSA also found that environmental conditions like exposure to sunlight and coastal climates can hasten the aging process.

If your spare is in the trunk, it's as if it is "baking in a miniature oven," says Dan Zielinski, senior vice president of public affairs for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. But if the tire has been inflated and mounted on a wheel, it is technically "in service," even if it's never been used, Gervin says. All these factors contribute to how quickly or slowly a tire wears out.

A tire that has not been mounted and is just sitting in a tire shop or your garage will age more slowly than one that has been put into service on a car. Conditions of use: This refers to how the tire is treated. Proper maintenance is the best thing a person can do to ensure a long tire life.

This Edmunds article about reading a tire's sidewall goes into greater detail, but for the purposes of determining the age of a tire, you'll just need to know its U. The first two digits still tell you the week, but the third digit tells you the year in the decade that it was created. Some tires made in the 1990s (but not all) have a triangle after the DOT code, denoting that decade.More recently, an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed the actor Paul Walker revealed that the Porsche Carrera GT in which he was riding had nine-year-old tires.The California Highway Patrol noted that the tires' age might have compromised their drivability and handling characteristics, according to the .This cracking can eventually cause the steel belts in the tread to separate from the rest of the tire.An animation on the Safety Research & Strategies Web site shows how this happens.

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