Tires are one of the most important -- and oft-overlooked -- components of our cars. Tires are the only thing that attach our cars to the road, and tire problems affect your car's ride comfort, handling and safety. Here are some simple tire safety tips to help keep you and your car's occupants safe.
Check your tire pressure regularly. Tires tend to lose air over time. Buy a digital tire gauge and check your tires once a month and before a long trip. Proper inflation pressures can be found in your owner's manual or on a sticker on the car (usually on the driver's doorjamb or fuel-filler lid -- see photo.) Remember to check tire pressure only after the car has been sitting for several hours in order to ensure that the tires are cold -- the friction of driving heats the tires and increases pressure, which can hide an under-inflated tire.
Address under-inflated tires immediately. An under-inflated tire has more rolling resistance, which increases fuel consumption. It also creates more heat, which can lead to tire failure.
Don't forget the spare. Getting a flat tire and discovering that your spare is also flat is a miserable experience. Inspect your spare as you would your other tires. If you have a compact spare, the inflation pressure will usually be written on the tire. If your car comes with a compressor and/or flat repair kit in lieu of a spare, check their operation regularly.
Check for tread depth. Check tread depth by placing the edge of a penny upside-down into the grooves of the tire's tread. (Photo here.) If you can see all of Lincoln's head, it's time for a new set of tires. Never buy a single tire -- it's best to replace all four tires at once, but at the very least they should be bought as axle pairs (both fronts or both rears). Rotating your tires every 5,000 to 7,000 miles will help ensure that all four tires wear at the same rate.
Check for even wear. When you check tread depth, check both the inside and outside edge of the tires. Uneven tire wear is usually a sign that your car is out of alignment. Proper alignment optimizes handling and helps prevent premature tire wear.
Look for tire damage. When you check pressure, inspect the sides of the tires for nicks, bulges, cracks and cuts. Such damage often cannot be repaired and will require replacement of the tire.
Stay balanced. If your car develops a shimmy (a back-and-forth vibration, usually felt through the steering wheel) at a certain speed, it's possible that one of your tires has lost its balance weight. Having your tires re-balanced is a fairly inexpensive job.
Buy the right tire for the job. Most cars come with all-season tires, the tire equivalent of a jack-of-all-trades. If you live in the rust belt, consider a set of dedicated snow tires for the winter; they do wonders for safety. If you live where it's always warm and dry, "summer" performance tires can vastly improve your car's handling.
And most importantly:
Never hesitate to replace a worn or damaged tire. Tires are not cheap, but they are vital to the safety of you and your car's occupants. Remember, the tires are the only thing that connect your car to the road. Advanced safety features such as antilock brakes and electronic stability control can't do their life-saving jobs without four good tires. Take care of your tires -- because whether you know it or not, you're counting on them to take care of you. -- Aaron Gold