How to Tell if You Need New Tires
The more you drive, the more contact your tires have with the road. Driving on old or faulty tires can be extremely dangerous, so you may be wondering how to tell if you need new tires. A few simple statistics about Northern Virginia’s traffic habits can help explain:
Eighty-one percent of commuters in Fairfax County drive to work, according to U.S, Census data. Another 67 percent of Alexandria’s commuters are on the road, as well as 60 percent of the mobile Arlington workforce.
The average commute takes over 36 minutes. That’s assuming there’s not a fender-bender or two on 66 or 395. The Washington, D.C. area has the ninth-worst traffic in the country, according to the 2017 Traffic Index.
This ranking is actually an improvement over the results of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s controversial 2015 study that reported the Washington, D.C. metro area had the worst traffic in the U.S., costing commuters 82 hours each year. That’s over three full days the average Northern Virginia commuter spends in her car rather than doing — well, anything else. Hope you like podcasts!
How to Tell if You Need New Tires
We spoke with Christian Ianni, Learning & Development Manager here at Virginia Tire & Auto, to gain some insight into the lifespan of your tires.
One with the road: Your tires keep you safe.
It’s easy to take your tires for granted in the course of this daily deluge of travel. As long as your tires are not causing an insurmountable problem — i.e., there is not a railroad spike actively lodged into one of your tires, or the tire pressure hasn’t sank to a level that forces a light on your dashboard to demand your attention — you may not think about your tires at all.
This is a mistake. The fact that your tires have not failed does not mean you are driving on safe tires. The key to car maintenance is diligence, and knowing when you need new tires is a big part of your overall car maintenance plan.
Your tires are the only touchpoint your vehicle has with the road. Tire issues tend to come on fast, and can cause serious damage to your car as well as real danger to you and your passengers. One quick stab at stopping in a light rain or a dusting of snow may irreparably change your life.
So how can you tell when you need new tires? Let’s look at some of the red flags.
How to Tell if You Need New Tires:
You’ll know you need new tires when:
1. …your tires wear out.
There’s a rule of thumb that says your tire tread should never get below 2/32 of an inch — and many people don’t even like to cut it that close. Virginia Tire & Auto mechanics actually recommend replacing your tires when the tread’s at 4/32. Anything below the 2/32 measurement won’t pass Virginia Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection.
Tires can wear out for several reasons, including:
Irregular wear. How often do you have your car’s wheel alignment and tire balance checked? The new tire installation process includes wheel alignment and balancing, but make sure that your annual car maintenance plan includes an alignment and balance checkup. Otherwise, you are at risk of heel/toe tire wear, feathering or one-sided shoulder wear. Say what? Learn more about tire alignment issues now.
No rotation. Tire maintenance is key. Maybe you shouldn’t be asking “do I need new tires” — maybe you should ask “When’s the last time my tires were rotated?” If your answer is “Um…” then it is probably time to get that rotation done soon. Your front tires tend to wear down more quickly than your back tires, so if you skip the rotation, you’re going to burn those two out much faster.
Low tire pressure. No one likes to see the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) light come on in their vehicle. That does not mean your should ignore it and hope it goes away. There are plenty of reasons why you could have low tire pressure: a slow leak, valve stem issues, hitting a big bump or even osmosis through the tire itself. Even cold weather can lower your tire pressure! Get it checked out.
Over- or under-inflation. Under-inflated tires allow more of the tire to touch the road. “Great!” you say. Not great. More tire on the road (known as the contact patch) means the more friction, which causes heat, which can cause a blowout.
“Well, I will just over-inflate my tires, then,” you reply. Also a bad idea — over-inflated tires wear out faster and mess with your car’s handling, which can be dangerous. Plus, you’ll feel every bump on the road.
Your tires should have visible tread wear bars. When the bars are flush with the tire’s surface, it’s time for new tires. You can also try the famous “penny test” — just stick a penny into one of your tires treads, Lincoln’s head first. If you can see Abe’s head, the tire is unsafe. Is his forehead is covered? You’re good.
2. …your tires are old.
Old tires are susceptible to dry rot, a condition caused by the breakdown of rubber over time. A normal set of tires should last for 60,000 to 75,000 miles, or about four to five years, depending on how much you drive (probably more, here in Northern Virginia). It’s unlikely your tires will get old enough for dry rot to kick in.
When you have a vehicle you only use seasonally, or if you just don’t drive very often, dry rot can occur around the 10-year mark. Dry rot is characterized by fading and cracking, which lead to tire failure. If your tires are approaching the decade mark, you don’t have to ask yourself, “Do I need new tires?” You do — it’s a good idea to have new tires installed.
3. …you drove on a flat for too long.
A good rule of thumb: don’t drive on a flat tire. Obviously, you can’t just shut your vehicle down if you are stuck in traffic on the Fairfax County Parkway or are cruising across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge when the flat occurs — try to move to the side of the road in a safe and conservative manner. You can probably travel a few hundred yards before the tire is completely shot and you start damaging your wheel. Do not, however, try to get where you are going on a flat (unless it’s under a few hundred yards away).
4. …the tire is damaged beyond repair.
Certain flat tires can be patched. They can live a full and normal life. Others, however, are destined for the recycling center. No need to wonder “Do I need new tires?” if there is damage to the tire shoulder or sidewall — it’s a goner. A tire with dry rot (see above), tires that went flat and were driven on too long (see above again) and tires that have “bead leaks” (air is seeping out near the rim) or “pinch bubbles” (the tire has a visible blister) all need to be replaced.