ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation found millions of potentially dangerous recalled tires have never been recovered -- and they could be on the car one lane over from you.
Consumer investigator Jim Strickland was able to purchase a brand-new Firestone tire that was part of the most infamous recall in history.
Consumer advocates said the recall system is broken and the lives of victims like Carolyne Thorne of Montgomery, Ala. are left shattered.
"He said, 'I am afraid that you will be paralyzed. You will never walk again,' and that was like a death sentence to me. It was like dying," Thorne told Strickland.
Thorne has spent nine years hoping to prove her doctor wrong. It takes three grueling therapy sessions each week to regain what she lost in 2004 on a stretch of Interstate 85 heading to La Grange, Ga.
"I heard a loud noise and then the truck started swerving," Thorne said.
Her SUV rolled several times after a faulty tire shredded. Thorne didn't know it had been recalled a year and a half earlier.
"I was mad as hell that they put me in this chair," Thorne said.
Federal records show Continental Tire recalled more than 596,000 of these tires, but recovered fewer than 275,000.
Auto recalls use Department of Motor Vehicles records to track cars and owners, but an attorney said the recall system for tires is not working.
"The recall system is broken," attorney Matt Wetherington told Strickland.
Wetherington, an Atlanta defective-products attorney, said in the last decade, 4.5 million tires were recalled but less than 1 million were recovered.
Where are the rest? Channel 2 Action News went shopping for them in metro Atlanta.
At the first stop, an undercover producer was able to buy a Firestone Wilderness AT tire -- new-looking, but actually 17 years old and part of the infamous recall involving rollover wrecks that killed more than 250 people.
"It's a good tire?" the undercover producer asked the used-tire salesman.
"Very good tire," he said
"It's not one of those recalls is it?" the producer asked.
"Nope," replied the salesman.
Firestone documents show 2.7 million recalled Wilderness ATs were in service, but they recovered fewer than half of them.
Strickland went back to get answers from the tire store.
"Where do you end up with a brand-new recalled Firestone tire?" he asked the tire store salesman.
The tire shop employee says they bought it salvaged from a wrecker operator.
"So I didn't know anything, whether it was a recall or what. He said it was a spare tire," the store manager told Strickland.
In Cobb County, Strickland found a recalled spare under Amanda Miller's 13-year-old Explorer. It was left behind when she had her tires replaced due to the recall. She's never needed it.
"I feel a little lucky that nothing's happened to me, to be honest. I feel fortunate -- that I've dodged the bullet," Miller said to Strickland.
Tire failures spread calamity all over the road. Strickland reviewed dozens of fatality-accident reports from across Georgia. In one, a pick-up's de-tread caused a four-vehicle wreck in Camden County. A motorcyclist caught up in it died.
To protect all drivers, Wetherington spent two years gathering federal recall data to create a free smartphone app called "Tire Facts." By plugging in a tire's DOT code, the app gives the history and alerts for a recall.
"I was shocked at how preventable these wrecks are," Wetherington said. "Your investigation has removed a tire from the market that undoubtedly would have hurt or killed somebody."
Just before newstime, Firestone emailed this statement. Strickland have asked them for documentation to substantiate claims that 97 percent of their 2000-2001 recalled tires were recovered. Documents filed with the federal government as of late at 2009 do not support the claim.