For most people, the response to a flat tire is, “Call CAA!” And that’s fine – we don’t like changing a tire, either.
But while tires are better than they’ve ever been, and flat ones are relatively rare these days, you should still be prepared. Here’s how to help prevent them, how to deal with a flat, and what to do after that white knight gets you going again.
What To Do Before
A little preventive maintenance can help reduce your chances of a problem.
Check your tire pressure once a month. Many vehicles have tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), but they only warn at a certain level. Your tire could be low – just not enough to warn you. It’ll run hotter, which uses more fuel and causes premature wear.
To check the level, use a tire pressure gauge. You can buy them at auto parts stores, and they range from inexpensive stick- or dial-style, to pricier electronic ones. The correct pressure is on a label inside the door jamb (sometimes it’s glued inside the glovebox or the fuel filler door), or in your owner’s manual. Don’t go by the pressure moulded into the tire. That’s the maximum it can hold.
Check for nails, screws, or sharp stones stuck in the tread. If there are cracks or bulges in the sidewall, you’re off to the tire store for a new one. If you have a spare tire, check its pressure – a flat one isn’t much use to you.
Make sure your tire has enough tread. If you don’t have a tread-depth gauge (also sold at parts stores), do the “Bluenose” test. Put a Canadian dime upside-down into the tread. If you can see all of the Bluenose ship’s sails, it’s time for replacement.
Rotate your tires as recommended by the manufacturer. This helps them wear evenly for longer life, and if you have it done at a shop, the technician will inspect them to make sure everything’s okay.
What To Do During
If a tire goes flat while you’re driving, the vehicle will pull hard to one side. Don’t panic, and don’t slam on the brakes. Instead, take your foot off the throttle and steer to the side of the road. Put on your four-way flashers, not just your turn signal.
Change the tire there only if it’s safe to do so. Drivers tend to fixate and bang into whatever has caught their attention, and you don’t want someone staring and aiming your way. Lonely areas can also have the potential for danger, especially for women on their own.
If it doesn’t feel right, drive slowly – four-way flashers on – until you get to safety. You’ll ruin the tire and possibly damage the wheel, but you’re worth more than that.
What’s in the trunk? Full-size spare tires are rare these days. You may have a compact spare, commonly called a “doughnut,” which has speed and distance limitations marked on it. Otherwise, you might have a tire repair kit. This includes a can of sealant, which you spray in through the tire’s valve stem, and an inflator for pumping up the tire.
If you’re changing a tire, follow the instructions in your owner’s manual or on the jack. Make sure the jack is on solid ground, not a soft or loose surface. It will have a pin or trough that corresponds to a mounting point under the vehicle to prevent it slipping. Loosen the wheel’s lug nuts before jacking up the car. When putting the nuts back on, tighten them in a star pattern, not around the circle. Once the vehicle’s back down on its tires, tighten the nuts again before driving.
What About Run-Flats?
Run-flat tires support the vehicle even when they’ve lost all their air. Some have very thick sidewalls, while others have a solid support ring inside the rim. They’re most commonly found as factory equipment on some performance vehicles. There’s also an aftermarket one, Bridgestone’s DriveGuard, that replaces regular tires on vehicles like the Toyota Camry.
Run-flats can only be used with TPMS, because they don’t look any different when they’re low on air. If you get a flat-tire warning, you can keep driving. They do have their limits, and it’s best to keep to moderate speeds and go to a repair facility as soon as possible. Your vehicle may pull a little to one side, especially when braking, so pay attention and drive accordingly.
After You’ve Had A Flat
Get the tire repaired or replaced as soon as possible. We’ve all seen people drive on the “doughnut” spare for months – don’t be one of them!
Not all flats can be repaired. If the sidewall is damaged, you need a new tire. Punctures in the tread can be repaired, but only if they’re not too big, or too far out from the centre. Two puncture repairs are the usual limit on most tires, and they can’t be too close together, or directly across from each other.
The “old” repair was a rubber plug pushed into the puncture. There’s now a far superior plug-and-patch combination, and that’s what you want. The tire should come off the rim and be repaired from inside.
Run-flat tires are a special case. They need to be dismounted and inspected for internal damage. Repairing them can be iffy, and it’s likely you’ll need a new one. Don’t replace it with a cheaper conventional tire, because mixing the two types can affect the car’s handling.
More than brakes, more than seatbelts, your vehicle’s most important safety feature is its tires. They’re the only thing holding you to the road. If a repair is questionable on any tire, always stay safe with a new one.