Tire Talk

My wife had a guy holler at her the other day. Not because she’s beautiful (though she is) but because she was driving around on a nearly flat tire.

I am very grateful to that guy.

A flat tire – or even a tire that’s just low on air – can be more than an inconvenience.

It can be a catastrophe.

Think about a table. It sits on four legs. If one leg is shorter than the other, the table wobbles. Apply the same general concept to a car – at 50 MPH.

In a curve.

Tires leak – often slowly. Most cars built in the last two years or so have electronic tire-pressure monitors that will warn you – via a dashboard light – when a tire is low on air. Some of these systems monitor individual tires – and give you the exact air pressure (measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI). Others have a simple amber warning light that comes on when any of the four tires is low on air.

But even if your car has an electronic monitoring system – and especially if it doesn’t – it’s very important to regularly check all four tire visually.

And then confirm inflation pressure manually.

Ideally, each time you go for a drive, walk around the car and take a good look at all four tires for obvious signs of a problem. Not just one that looks to be low on air, but also for signs of physical damage or deterioration. For example, a bulge on the sidewall, or a tear.

Hairline cracks – dry rot – are another thing to watch for. Pay particular attention to any tire that is more than six or seven years old. Even if the tread is good, the tire may still be bad. A dry-rotted tire can be just as dangerous as one with next to no treat and you should probably think about replacing it. In the meanwhile, drive with caution. Avoid sustained high-speed driving especially.

If you see a sidewall bulge or tear, do not drive the car at all.

Call roadside assistance – or your spouse (or a good friend) and have them come pick you up – and have the car picked up by a tow truck and taken to a tire shop. A tire with a bulge in the sidewall – or a torn sidewall – could fail suddenly (and catastrophically) at any time. Rather than a gradual, slow leak, all the air could leak out at once – like a balloon popping. If this happens while you’re driving, the car could become uncontrollable – and you could have an accident.

The same rules apply with low-on-air tires, too – just not to the same degree.You may remember the Firestone tire/Ford Explorer debacle of the late ’90s. Under-inflated (and, apparently, defective) tires and high speed driving resulted in tires exploding and Explorers rolling. A car with one under-inflated tire may handle strangely, especially if the steering wheel is jerked suddenly to the left or right (as when the driver is attempting to swerve around another car, or avoid an obstacle).

Your vehicle’s panic stop braking distance will likely increase, too.

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