The underappreciated tire gives you performance and comfort, with your life suspended on a mere 25 pounds of rubber and air
By guest writer Joel Levin, New Jersey Newspaper Group
About 15 years ago, I noticed a telephone installer circumnavigating his truck before driving away. I asked what he was doing. “Checking for hazards and obstacles,” he said.
By forcing yourself to add ten seconds to your trip by walking around your car, you also will never back over a cat or hit a child bending down to pick up a rolling ball.
Since then, I have always walked around my vehicle before driving off. Yes, even if that’s ten times a day.
I always check each tire for visible softness or damage EVERY time I get into a car. In the case described below, I had checked before leaving a parking lot, and then because of the danger involved in walking across a heavily-trafficked roadway, drove just across the street to another parking lot.
I parked, conducted my business, and returned to the car. My habitual walk around revealed that a huge nail had somehow made its way through the meatiest part of the tire in the last hundred yards that I had driven.
How could a six-inch spike have punctured the tread from inner to outer side? A misfiring nail gun? Whatever the cause, the reality was that somehow it happened, and the right rear tire had been pierced by a big, scary sharp piece of metal.
I reached into my always-well-stocked trunk and grabbed a Vise-Grip, a slip-joint pliers, and a hammer. With some precision manipulation and coaxing, I successfully extracted the offending nail. The tire then functioned perfectly. It had appeared to be fatal — I was expecting a bleed-out — but it was only a flesh wound in the beefy part of the tread.
One moral of this story is that if I had not taken a look before driving off, the tire might have been torn apart during the next few miles of driving. But I felt in awe at just how good today’s tires can be.
Beware of the Pothole Monster
We ask a lot of our tires:
- They transport valuable human cargo at speeds exceeding a mile-a-minute
- Each one supports over a thousand pounds in the average passenger vehicle
- All year, they steer us accurately through curves and snow
- They never complain when they suffer bumps and twists
- Every time-driven, tires undergo rapid acceleration and deceleration
- Daily, they hit curbs and speed bumps without shedding a tear
Then there’s Public Enemy Number One—the hated, one-eyed, tire-eating Pothole Monster lying in wait to ambush tires and suspensions.
Tires have come a long way in the 100+ years since the original skinny tires and rims modeled after wooden-spoke wagon wheels.
In the 1950s, flats were a weekly occurrence. Now, consumers can buy specialty tires rated for mud and snow traction, extreme off-road rock climbing, or even 200-mph speeds.
Computer design helps makers optimize tire design to minimize hydroplaning, increase mileage, avoid brittleness in frigid temperatures, and provide a cushiony ride for touring.
Technology has spared us the anxiety of worrying about tire safety, but be warned—always carry an inflated spare!
If your vehicle came without a spare, throw one in the trunk if you plan on venturing beyond AAA towing range. And because you can’t choose whether to have a breakdown in your neighborhood or on the way to grandma’s out-of-state home, spend the few extra bucks for 100-mile or 200-mile towing.
Wakeup Call: This Could Happen To You
About a year ago, three good tires on my daily chariot were destroyed beyond repair in three separate incidents, and all from road hazards that gave no warning.
Each time, the failure was caused by practically-invisible damage to a sidewall, a tire’s Achilles heel. Three times in two months is a statistical rarity, but unfortunately, I proved to myself that it can happen.
Then, this winter, disaster struck again, with a BANG! A small, sharp-edged road lesion just 15 yards from my driveway bit through the sidewall of a beautiful expensive tire 600 miles young. Yes, another sidewall sob story. That mini-crater, not deep enough to call a pothole, was chipped out by a snowplow during the day’s storm. [I deleted “damage” five words back.]
Tire tread, the grooved part that contacts pavement, is pretty forgiving and repairable, but even a tiny cut or puncture in a sidewall will render the tire unusable and unsalvageable and will leave you stranded.
I am now compelled to issue you a warning:
Since there’s no way to defend against unseen hazards, assume that one will ambush you, so be prepared for an emergency by carrying blankets, water, non-perishable food such as energy bars and nuts, charged cell phone batteries, flashlights, a red flashing light or flares, a loud whistle, and a high-visibility yellow vest for use if you must leave your vehicle.
Also, like a good Scout, be prepared with a lighter, matches, first-aid kit, basic tools, and a few days’ worth of prescription medications and pain-killers if this applies to you.
If your vehicle becomes disabled on a high-traffic road, pull as far off the roadway as is prudent to avoid getting rear-ended—a vital step to take in low-visibility conditions.
A year ago, every highway in a hilly area of New Jersey only 12 miles from Manhattan was paralyzed by a mere six inches of sudden, unexpected snow. We’re not talking Colorado, Utah, or the Sierras; this was 500 feet above sea level. My neighbor, who had picked up her child from school, was stuck overnight for 10 hours only miles from home. Multiply her plight by thousands of travelers, and we’re talking about a lot of frustration and misery. And hunger. And full bladders. And danger.
The above anecdote also gives support for my recommendation of maintaining a full gas tank if you must idle the engine for hours of heat or air-conditioning when marooned in the cold or heat. If you do, however, run out of fuel in the winter, that’s why you are carrying blankets.
Tire Stuff No One Told You but Could Save Your Life
- If you have a sudden blowout due to a tire failure caused by a manufacturing defect or road hazard, DO NOT jam on the brakes for a panic stop, which could result in a lack of control related to changing vehicle dynamics. Instead, keep a firm grip on the wheel with two hands and STEER to safety on the roadside, as far from traffic as you can. Brake and steer gently in order not to go into a spin or have forces pull the tire off the rim and cause bigger problems.
- Tires are not glued to rims; they are held on by the force of the air inside them. MOST cars have at least one underinflated tire. A soft tire cannot support as much weight as a properly-inflated tire, and soft tires wiggle and rub against their wheels, causing excess friction which can lead to tire failure. CHECK inflations or have someone check every couple of weeks. Also, LOOK at your tires for obvious under inflation or a flat during your walk around. On newer vehicles, don’t ignore the telltale instrument panel exclamation point indicating under inflation in at least one tire. It’s a warning of real potential disaster.
- Live in the Snow Belt? Use all-season tires at a minimum; even better: mount snow tires all around. This advice holds for rear-wheel-drive, front-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-drive, and all-wheel drive. The increased traction in snow and ice could give just the margin you need to keep you from sliding across the road or suffering a collision. This is science, and it could mean your life.
- Keep a rechargeable or 12-volt plug-in tire inflator on board. It can be a handy temporary fix for a tire gone soft from a slow leak, and of course, it can help to maintain proper inflation. The best all-around tool for this purpose is one on a dual-purpose jump-starter/inflator.
- Tires have a finite shelf life since they are attacked by UV solar radiation and also by ozone in the air. The same deterioration that happens to old rubber gloves or a rubber spatula can occur to tires. Even if your tires have logged only a few thousand miles in five years, have a professional examine them for dry rot or other rubber diseases.
- When buying replacement tires, to avoid dangerous handling changes, NEVER mount mismatched tires on the same axle, and if you’re buying only two tires, always mount the new ones on the rear wheels. If mounted on the front, they WILL affect steering accuracy and can cause skids because they will have more grip than the rear tires.
For more tips like the ones above, a good general Web site on tire safety and all-around car information is SaferCar.gov. A well-organized and very comprehensive site is TireSafety.com, which gives elementary advice and covers some quite fascinating material on tire history and construction, besides safety facts.
Joel Levin has written about autos and has consulted for the industry in marketing areas since before cars became rolling computers. He hates to think of a time when we might have to say, “…and when cars still had steering wheels.” “Mister Safety” is starting a Teenage Safe Driving program with local police departments. Reach him at [email protected].
Photo attributions: Joel Levin; and Ian Abbott licensed under Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).