Dear Car Talk:
I have a 1995 Honda Accord wagon with 128,000 miles and 16-year-old tires. Do I have to worry that my tires are going to split apart one of these days?
The car is in excellent condition otherwise. I am a member of the Old Ladies Club! -- Ronda
If you never drive more than about 6 mph, Ronda, you'll probably be fine with those 16-year-old tires.
But if you ever drive at high speeds, like 8 or 10 mph, I'd strongly suggest you pony up for a new set of tires.
Tires wear out in two ways.
One way is through use: The rubber creates friction with the road surface. That friction is what allows you to do things like turn and stop. As the rubber creates that friction, it literally gets scrubbed off the tire. So, every time you drive, your tires give up a tiny bit of their surface. Eventually, they wear down to the point that there's not enough tread left to provide sufficient friction or channel away water. And at that point, it's time for a new set.
But tires also degrade due to exposure to the ozone in the air. If you left a brand-new tire outside, even if you never put it on a car, the rubber would eventually degrade, dry out and crack. And once it dries out and loses its pliability, the tire becomes dangerous and is a candidate to blow out.
I don't know how many miles you have on your tires, but with 16 years of exposure to the atmosphere, I'm pretty sure they're cooked. If you look at the side walls, you'll almost certainly see hundreds of little cracks.
Tire manufacturers recommend you buy new tires every six years, whether you've worn them out or not, due to the degradation of the rubber. Now, even assuming they're a little overeager to sell new tires, you're still well outside any reasonable life expectancy for a set of tires, Ronda.
So, take the car to your regular mechanic and ask them to recommend some new tires for you. Based on how long you've waited to buy tires, ask him to do a complete safety check on this 25-year-old car to make sure there's nothing else (brakes, steering, ball joints) that's a good 10 years overdue for replacement.