Essentials for Tire Safety and Maintenance

Old tire
Image by John Goreham

This week of June 27th to July 3rd is National Tire Safety Week. With the upcoming heavy travel season about to begin, why not take a few minutes to gauge your tire safety plan?

Although we are crazy about tires at Car Talk, we realize that the subject lacks traction for most readers. However, tire safety is no joke. The National Highway Traffic Administration says that hundreds of us roll into emergency rooms each year from tire-failure-related mishaps. Yikes.

The truth is, taking good care of your tires takes just moments. Let’s run down the list of best practices to keep you and your passengers safe, as well as prolong the life and enhance the performance of your tires.

Essential Tire Maintenance Steps

Tire Pressure

The first step to keeping your tires in good condition is to maintain the proper tire pressure. Modern cars make this as easy as hunting and pecking through a dozen infotainment menus. Who doesn’t like to start the day with a good Settings > Vehicle > TPMS > Pressure menu hunt? It’s not as bad as we make it seem. If you have had the car a while, you’ve likely stumbled across the menus accidentally. Most cars today will display the pressure in each tire.

We like to kick it old school sometimes and skip the computers. Grab a tire pressure gauge and check the pressure manually. Before you do, open the driver’s door and check out the door jam. Every car in America has the proper tire pressure setting printed there.

Pressure label forester
Image by John Goreham

Check the pressure in the morning after the car has been sitting for a while. The tire pressure set points assume the car is cold and the tires haven’t been driven on. Tires add a couple of PSI (Pounds Per Square Inch) as they roll along. If you need to top up the pressure, use a small portable compressor or your local service station’s hose. Check your tire pressure at the start of each new season, before any road trip, and whenever you have the car serviced.

You should check the pressure in your spare tire annually as well. We suggest letting your mechanic do that. Here’s why; The compact temporary spares common to most vehicles today require 60 PSI. Your small compressor and the coin-operated pumps at gas stations can’t create that much pressure, but your mechanic’s shop compressor can. Also, 60 PSI is nothing to sneeze at. Make a mistake and exceed that pressure and you could end up injured.

Tire indicator logo when to replace them
Image courtesy of Goodyear

Tread Wear And Damage Inspection

Next, inspect your tires for damage and tread wear. Look for any cracks, tears, or bubbles along each outer sidewall. If you find any, have the tire inspected at a local tire shop or by your mechanic.

Checking a tire’s tread is simple. Every tire comes with wear bars across the tread every six inches or so. Your tire tread should be higher than the wear bar across its full width. Some tires even have tread-wear indicators that tell you how much is left. You don’t need a coin or a fancy tool to see if your tires have a safe level of tread remaining. Your mechanic will measure the remaining tread depth at your next visit to estimate the remaining miles of life.

Rotation

As tires wear, they do so unevenly. That is because your suspension doesn’t position them flat to the ground on each corner. Each has a bit of tilt to the tire and the tread will wear unevenly if left to roll its whole life in the same spot on your car.

Rotate your tires according to your owner’s manual in terms of position changes and frequency. If your tires are not the same size front to rear (common practice on many sports cars) you can still rotate side to side, as long as your tread pattern allows for that.

Summer / All-season / Winter Change Out

If you have a sports car with summer-only, high-performance tires, be sure to swap them out to winter-rated tires when seasonal temperatures fall below 40 degrees fahrenheit in your area. If you use all-season tires and wish to augment your snow and ice performance with a better tire for winter, you can swap them out for fall and spring.

This is common practice for many automotive enthusiasts. However, it’s a practice that many are now skipping due to new tire technology. All-weather tires like Michelin’s CrossClimate2 and Falken’s Wildpeak A/T Trail tire now come with the three-peak-mountain-snowflake severe snow duty rating. While they fall a smidge short of a true winter tire in the most extreme ice and snow, they are so good many die-hard tire swappers have simply switched to one of the new style tires and report excellent results. We’ve made the change on two vehicles in the Car Talk fleet and can report excellent results. One of which is a big storage space in our spouse’s closet where the tires used to live.

TPMS warning light

Trust Your TPMS Warning Light

If Car Talk could offer readers just one piece of tire advice it would be to trust your tire pressure monitoring system warning light. When that light comes on, pull over as soon as it is safe to do so and investigate the issue. Check each tire’s pressure with a gauge, not by eye. If you drive even a short distance on a flat tire it can be damaged and you can lose control. Take fast action, and the tire may well be repairable.

Spare tire image
Image by John Goreham

Essential Items to Keep in Your Car

Planning ahead for tire-related breakdowns can save you time, and money, and help keep you safe. Here is a rundown of the things Car Talk suggests you stash inside your cargo area.

Spare tire - If you have a spare tire, you are ahead of the game. Nearly every top-selling vehicle in America comes with a spare tire. However, many specialty cars, particularly electric vehicles, are starting to come without one. If your car doesn’t have a spare tire give Modern Spare a look. This aftermarket company offers compact spare tire kits for many popular EVs and sports cars.

Tools to change a tire - You can certainly rely on roadside assistance to help you to change a tire. However, you may have to wait a while. AAA and other roadside service providers are having the same staffing struggles as all industries are. We suggest you have the following items in your car:

  • A jack in the car.
  • A large “breaker bar” socket wrench to loosen and tighten the lug nuts.
  • A magnetic LED flashlight.
  • Spare batteries.
  • Gloves.
  • A rain poncho.
  • A baseball cap on hand, preferably Red Sox… :)
  • A compact 12-volt compressor to add air to a tire is a must. Most flats are slow-leak punctures. A small compressor can help get you home, to work, or perhaps to a local tire repair shop. Then you can deal with the change if necessary. Small compressors cost under $100.
  • Tools to repair a puncture - A puncture repair kit is an inexpensive and compact item you may never need, but hey, why not?
  • Rubber cement.
  • Tire plugs.
  • A basic tool kit with a multi-tool, pocket knife, multiple-head screwdriver, roll of black electrical tape, and of course, a tire gauge is always helpful and takes up almost no space at all in your cargo area.
  • Bungee cords and rope.
  • USB mobile phone charger for your phone.
cargo subaru forester
Image by John Goreham

Advanced Tire Care - Checking Your Tires’ Age

If your car is older or you purchased it used, you should check the age of the tires. Each tire has an age code printed on the outer sidewall. Your mechanic has the secret decoder ring, or you can decipher it yourself using these instructions. If your tires are older than ten years of age, replace them.

Read more about the Essential Tire Tools to Keep in Your Car here.

FAQ

How can I tell if I have enough tire tread?

All tires have tread wear indicator bars. If your tire is worn to the bar on any of its surfaces, you need new tires. Your mechanic can use a tread depth tool to see how many miles you have remaining.

How long do tires typically last?

Most tires sold for mainstream cars and crossovers will last 50,000 miles or more unless damaged. Some performance vehicles have tires with soft compounds that can wear out in under 20,000 miles. Unusually heavy vehicles like EVs also experience shorter tire life.

My tire has some sidewall damage. How do I know if it is safe?

Take the car to the nearest tire retailer or dealership and ask for a tire inspection. When in doubt, change the tire.

How do I know what pressure my tires need?

Your tires should be inflated to the car manufacturer’s suggested pressure. It is printed on your driver’s side door jam. Most passenger car tires are set someplace between 30 PSI and 40 PSI. However, truck tires can be higher in pressure and compact spares often require 60 PSI.

Editor's note and disclaimer: Car Talk is supported by our fans, readers and listeners. When you click on some of the links on our website, we may receive referral compensation. However, you should know that the recommendations we make are based on our independent editorial review and analyses.
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