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Safety-wise, there’s a lot riding on your tires. But many car owners don’t routinely inspect the rubber they are riding on or know what to look for.
“Tires are what connects us to the road, and if they are worn, that will reduce your car’s stability and traction,” says David Bennett, AAA's manager of repair systems.
Here are five situations where experts say changes in your driving conditions, tire wear or damage are common — and easy ways to make your tires last as long as possible.
1. You moved to a new place with a different climate
If you’ve recently moved from, for example, Southern California to Colorado, your driving conditions are now vastly different. And switching to winter tires might be in your future.
But don’t wait for the first storm. If your car starts to swap ends, or spin, that's "not a fun way to discover that you need different tires,” says Matt Edmonds, executive vice president of online retailer Tire Rack.
Ask your new neighbors, or an expert at a tire store, what the locals use to stay safe on the roads. Or you can use an online tire guide and user reviews to choose new tires.
2. You hit a pothole, nail or curb
While you’re checking your tires’ pressure — which you should do at least once each month — run your hand over the tread surface to see if there are any nails stuck in the tire or cuts in the tread or sidewall, Bennett says.
If you find a nail, don’t pull it out or you might wind up with a flat tire. Instead, drive to a tire repair shop and get them to pull out the nail and, if necessary, patch it.
Often, tires are damaged by running over a pothole or rubbing against a curb while parking, Edmonds says. Look for bubbles or bulges that could indicate a developing problem and result in a high-speed blowout. Damage on the inside of the tire is harder to spot and might require a trip to a tire store for an expert’s inspection.
3. Your tires are losing traction
Tires that have lost all or most of their tread can feel fine while driving in dry conditions. But once rain or snow hits, they lose traction and braking distances increase, Bennett says.
To measure tread depth, insert a quarter into the tread in the center of the tire with George Washington’s head pointing toward the tire. If the tread obscures the top of his head, your tires are in good shape.
If the top of Washington’s head is even with the tread, the tires are still safe to drive on, but it’s time to start shopping for new ones, Bennett says.
4. You hear tire noise, feel vibration or 'pulling'
These are all indicators that something is wrong either with your tires or, in some cases, with the alignment of your front wheels. As the tread wears, tires can become noisy, according to Edmonds.
Tires that wear unevenly can cause a vibration through the car, which is commonly felt through the steering wheel. The car is pulling when it doesn’t track straight, slowly wandering either left or right. This is often caused by misaligned front wheels.
5. You bought your tires more than six years ago
Rubber dries out over time, and even if there’s still plenty of tread, the sidewalls can crack.
The date the tires were manufactured is printed on the sidewall and is usually preceded by DOT for the Department of Transportation. The first two numbers stand for the week in the year it was made, and the other two are for the year. For example, if your tire has “1109” printed on it, then it was manufactured in the 11th week of 2009.
Edmonds says that tires should not be in continual service for more than six years or, if a car was garaged for extended periods, 10 years from the manufacturer date.
Tire care basics
Tires are expensive, but if you maintain them correctly, most tires provide reliable service for up to 60,000 miles. Here’s how to keep your tires in good condition so you can drive safely:
Buy a tire gauge and pump. Tire gauges typically cost less than $20. And instead of inflating at crowded gas stations, buy a battery-operated inflation pump for less than $75 and do it at home.
Locate your tire pressure level. The correct tire pressure level is usually listed on the yellow sticker often found in the driver’s side door jam.
Check your tire pressure at least once a month. To get an accurate reading, check your tires in the morning before you drive anywhere. Tires heat up when you drive on them, and this throws off the inflation amount.
Don’t forget your spare tire. Inflate your spare tire if you have one. Many cars now are sold without a spare but have an inflation pump and a can of tire sealant that will, in an emergency, both inflate and seal the leak in your tire.
Check your temperature. For every 10 degrees the outside temperature drops, a tire’s pressure will decrease by one pound per square inch. So, if you haven’t adjusted your tire pressure since the summer, you could be riding on underinflated tires that won’t handle as well, will wear more quickly and reduce your fuel economy.
Rotate your tires regularly. Doing this will make sure your tires wear evenly and last longer. Your car’s service manual recommends the number of miles you can drive between tire rotations.