We've all seen those wrinkled rubber remnants of blown-out tires crawling across the interstate. Tire blowouts are one of the top causes of auto accidents, especially during summer road trip season. Temperatures are high. People are driving farther and faster. And they're loading up their vehicles with more passengers and vacation items. Knowing what causes tires to pop and how to ensure they don't bust on the open road will keep you and other drivers safe.
Proper tire inflation and pressure is essential for tires to survive in extenuated circumstances, as air allows them to carry the weight of the vehicle and its cargo. With hot outside temperatures and road surfaces, pressure increases within the tires, which can weaken their stability. Add to that four passengers, the family dog and camping gear, and even more pressure is put on the already-expanded tires. In an article on the Popular Mechanics website, Mac Demere writes that underinflation is a surefire way to kill a tire. "Without proper air pressure, the internal components of the tire -- fabric, steel, rubber and composites -- flex beyond their designed limits," he says. In fact, government estimates report that only about 19 percent of drivers properly inflate their tires, so more people than not could be putting themselves at risk.
During peak tire-popping season, it's best to proactively check your tire pressure. In a phone interview, an employee at one local Firestone Complete Auto Care office mentioned that the prescribed pressure level for your vehicle will be located on a placard on the driver's doorjamb or in the owners manual. Additionally, all new cars since 2007 are equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System, or TPMS, but it only alerts you when one or more tires are significantly underinflated. The notification could be too little, too late if you are hauling heavy loads or many passengers on long trips. If adjustments need to be made, head to a gas station and use a do-it-yourself tire pressure pump, or bring your car to a mechanic.
Although car suspension systems are designed to handle bumps and jolts, even properly filled tires can be weakened or popped when slamming into a pothole, curb or other road hazard. "The impact pinches the tire's internals between wheel and obstacle," Demere says. "If the hit is hard enough, it can cut or fray the internals. Sometimes the pothole will cut all the way through fabric and rubber, and the tire will die right there. Other times the damage won't show up for months." Be vigilant and cautious on the road -- it's better to be safe than sorry.
The silent killer of tires is slow leaks. Perhaps your tires are old and dry, or you punctured one on a nail or piece of metal. Any leak can gradually decrease the integrity of a tire until it either goes flat or explodes under pressure. If you suspect a tire leak, automotive radio host Rick Popely suggests mixing liquid soap and water in a spray bottle, and then spraying all parts of the tire. If bubbles start to form on a particular spot, that's where the air is leaking.
In addition to hot weather, be prepared for summer thunderstorms because worn tires have less grip and are prone to hydroplaning. In the Consumer Reports article "Tire Maintenance Tips for Safe Road Trips," Gene Peterson writes: "Tires are worn out when they reach a tread depth of about 2/32 inch. That's the point where tread depth is about as deep as the distance from the top of Lincoln's head on a penny to the edge of the coin. ... Ideally, you should be shopping for replacements by the time the tread measures 4/32 inch, or the depth to the top of George Washington's head on a quarter." Before you hit the highway, do this quick, easy inspection of your tire treads for peace of mind.
When it comes to accidents, it's common to think, "It's never going to happen to me." Although this maintenance might seem an unnecessary hassle for those who have never experienced a blowout, take it from experts and experienced travelers: A little work upfront is worth potential hours on the roadside, injuries and wasted dollars later.