If I asked you what your favorite thing about your car was, you’d probably start telling me about the color, the hula girl on your dash, the practicality, or—if you’re like me—the engine or sound.
But I’ll bet I’d be hard pressed to find someone who would tell me that their tires are the most beloved part of their car. Tires, however, are the unsung heroes of the automobile, and they deserve your attention just as much as, if not more than, any other part of your car. In this article, we’ll discuss why tires are so important, how to know if yours are okay, and which ones to get if they aren’t.
What Makes Tires So Important?
In short, tires are important because they are the only connection between you and the road. If your tires aren’t performing, neither is anything else. Aside from this fundamental duty though, tires perform a collection of other tasks that keep you safe and secure while you’re driving.
To start, tires are responsible for keeping you on the road during a rainy or snowy day. The tire grooves move water and snow out of the way so that the tread can make contact with the road and deliver grip. Without grooves, hydroplaning and sliding can occur.
Tires are also responsible for providing adequate stopping power in an emergency braking situation. Stopping is a function of your tires’ ability to stick to the road, and worn tires will slide rather than stick, failing to stop the car. Similarly, turning too requires your tires to stick to the road surface. If they don’t do this properly, the wheels will turn but the car will continue forward. This process is called understeer, and in some cases, it can be extremely dangerous.
Bottom line: tires are very important. Any of these failures could score you a ride in a tow truck (or worse), inevitably foiling your plans to watch Law and Order reruns with your dog, who’s now left worrying why you’re not home when you’re supposed to be. So, save your dog the heartache and make sure your tires can withstand the stresses of daily driving.
How to Check Your Tires for Safety
Unlike many automotive maintenance items, modern tires make it easy for you to check their condition. Tire manufacturers are legally required to install a wear bar in the groove of the tires. This is a small rubber bar located at the bottom of the groove, and if the tread is level with this groove, it’s time to replace your tires. However, just because your tread isn’t exactly even with the wear bar doesn’t mean you’re good to go. The wear bar is a sign of critical tire wear, and it’s a good idea to change out your tires before they hit the wear bar.
There are also other, more precise ways to measure your tires’ wear. Tire wear is measured in 1/32nds of an inch. New tires typically have a tread depth of 10/32nds of an inch, and tires that need replacing are 4-3/32nds of an inch and below. You can measure this using a butter knife. Simply place the knife in the tire groove and mark where it meets the top edge of the groove with your thumb. Measure the distance between your thumb and the tip of the knife, and that is the exact tread depth of your tire.
Alternatively, many people use a penny instead, thinking that if Abe’s head is covered by the groove, their tires are safe. This is one of the most common and widespread misconceptions regarding automotive maintenance. The distance between (apparently dishonest) Abe’s head and the edge of a penny is 2/32nds of an inch, which would make the tires unsafe to drive on and warrant immediate replacement. A better indicator of tire wear is a quarter. The distance between the edge of a quarter and George Washington’s head is 4/32nds of an inch, a much safer benchmark to indicate the need to start shopping for new tires.
In addition to tread wear, there are other things to look for to make sure your tires are safe to drive on. Things like dry-rotting and tire bubbles can increase the risk of a blowout, and should be checked for regularly by scanning the sidewall visually. These issues are typically easy to spot.
What to Look for When buying New Tires
If your tires didn’t pass the test, then it’s time for you to start shopping. The first thing to look for is the performance category of the tire you would like. Most drivers are best suited by an all-season tire that can handle all weather conditions adequately. Other buyers are better-off with a set of summer tires for the warmer months, and winter tires for the colder ones. The performance category that’s best for you hinges primarily on the climate of the area in which you live and your general needs as a driver.
After determining what tire category best suits you, find out from your car’s manufacturer what size tire your vehicle is designed to use. This can usually be found by a simple online search or in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. Tire sizes can be complicated, so unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s best to stick to manufacturer recommendations.
Other important parameters to keep in mind are tread wear and traction ratings. Tread wear ratings are an indicator of tread longevity, measured on a scale starting at 100 and going up somewhat indefinitely from there; the higher the number the better. The traction rating of a tire measures how effectively the tire can stop on a wet road surface.
Traction ratings, in order of best to worst, follow this pattern: AA, A, B, C. It’s also worthy of mention that during your shopping, you may stumble across speed ratings, load indexes and other like parameters. Unless you’re a real gear-head, don’t worry about these measurements.
The bottom line is that tire know-how is nothing short of critical to the ownership and safe operation of a car. From what can go wrong if they fail, checking to make sure they don’t, and knowing how to replace the ones that do, you should know your tires, and now you do! So go ahead and drive with confidence. After checking your tires, that is!