Tire safety: Where the rubber meets the road

Linda Melone

Checking your tires before a long road trip may mean the difference between reaching your destination on time and spending hours stuck on the side of the road. AAA has estimated that in 2011, it will have rescued 1.2 million American motorists from Memorial Day through Labor Day who've been stranded by tire problems.

One of those problems is underinflated tires. A survey by the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed 85 percent of drivers don't know how to properly inflate their tires, and about 55 percent of cars have at least one underinflated tire.

Underinflated tires tend to overheat, making them more likely to blow out. A blown-out tire makes it difficult to handle your car, possibly resulting in you losing control and crashing.

Fifty-five percent of cars have at least one underinflated tire, which may force a driver to put on the spare.

In addition to the risk of serious injury to you and your passengers, a single crash can raise your car insurance premiums by 20 percent to 40 percent (depending on your insurance carrier), says Dawnyel Smink, owner of Canyon Lands Insurance in Phoenix.

From 2005 through 2009, nearly 3,400 people died and an estimated 116,000 people were injured in tire-related crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At least for members of AAA of Southern California, high temperatures, intense sunlight and dry air make August the worst month for underinflated tires and other tire mishaps, spokeswoman Elaine Beno says. "We change more tires for our members in August than any other month," she says.

To teach consumers about tire safety, the Rubber Manufacturers Association established a program called Be Tire Smart – Play Your PART. PART stands for pressure, alignment, rotation and tread, the four key elements of tire care.

1. Pressure.

Check tire pressure once a month and before long trips. The key: Check tires when cold, (before you drive) for an accurate reading. As the air in the tire warms, it increases tire pressure and may give you a false reading that's high.

A common mistake is using the tire pressure listed on the tire sidewall. This number indicates maximum pressure, not the recommended pressure. "The same tire may be found on several different models, so psi (pounds per square inch) may vary according to the vehicle's weight," says Christie Hyde, a spokeswoman for AAA.

Instead of using the sidewall number, refer to your owner's manual or a label found on the driver's door for the number recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.

In addition, check the air in your spare, which we often don't think about until we get a flat, Hyde says.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, properly inflated tires can save you up to 11 cents a gallon on gas.

2. Alignment.

Have your dealer check the alignment periodically as specified in your vehicle owner's manual. Hitting a curb or pothole can throw your front end out of alignment and damage your tires by creating uneven wear, which may harm your car's handling.

3. Rotation.

Each tire on your car supports a different amount of weight, says Daniel Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. This unequal weight distribution causes your tires to wear out at different rates. Rotating your tires extends their life.

If your tires wear unevenly, ask your dealer to check for and correct any imbalance or misalignment before rotating them.

Rotate tires every 5,000 miles, or according to the owner's manual for your car. If your front and rear tires require different air pressure, be sure to adjust tire inflation pressure after rotation.

4. Tread.

The tread helps your tires grip the road and prevents your car from slipping and sliding.

To check your tires for safe tread depth, first look for uneven wear, high and low areas or unusually smooth areas. Check for nails or other objects that may be embedded in a tire. Take your car to a repair shop or tire store if you spot any problems.

Another way to check for wear: Look for small, raised bars of rubber in the groove called "wear bars," which all tires have. They indicate when tires should be replaced.

Get new tires when the tread is worn down to 2/32 of an inch, the Rubber Manufacturers Association recommends.

You also can do the penny test to find out how much tread life your tires have left. Position Lincoln's head on a penny into one of the tire tread grooves. Part of his head should be covered by the thread. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, it's time to replace the tire.

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