Gridlock Guy: Poor tire maintenance is as bad as distracted driving

So much attention is paid to, well, the lack of attention drivers are paying behind the wheel and the havoc that carelessness causes. But what about the wheels themselves? Those deserve equal notice.

Bridgestone Tires flew some other media and me out to test some of their new tires at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth last week. We tested three different types of tires on four different courses to compare Bridgestone’s new lines for passenger, truck, and high performance tires in varying conditions. NFL Pro Bowlers DeAngelo Williams and Vince Wilfork (with his two Super Bowl rings) ran the same tests the day before.

“I’m thinking, ‘It’s the car and not the tires’,” Williams said about ride performance, after driving both slicked-down sporty courses and rugged off-road terrain. He noted all the enhancements people make to vehicles’ bodies, engines, brakes, and shocks to make their rides better. After the test, he understood the importance of good rubber. “In this case, the car had to keep up with the tires.”

Wilfork, after teasing Williams’ cautious driving, likened having good tires to having the proper football cleats for playing in rain and snow — they are essential. Wilfork’s many games with the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., give him authority on the issue.

But what can normal drivers do in everyday conditions to maximize fuel mileage, decrease the chance for flats, and prolong the life of their tires?

“The most important thing about tires is inflation pressure. The tire can’t function without the proper inflation pressure — they can’t give you the life that you want,” Keith Willcome, project engineer for Bridgestone Americas, explained. Automakers list the recommended PSI for a vehicle’s tires on the info sticker inside the driver’s side door. He said that the PSI on tires’ sidewalls is the maximum pressure for that tire, not the optimum one for the vehicle model.

“Check them once a week — when you get gas is a good time to do that.” Keep a simple pressure gauge in the car at all times and out in the open as a reminder. Under-inflated tires can overheat and damage the side walls and they get lousy gas mileage.

Willcome also said that while checking the pressure, drivers can also visually inspect tires for other signs of trouble. “Look at your tire and make sure you don’t see any cuts, scrapes, bulges, bumps, cracks forming.”

Then there’s the penny trick, he said, which at the very least can show when a tire tread is legally on its last legs. “Basically you take a penny and stick Lincoln’s head upside down in the tread. If you see all of Lincoln’s head, then your tire is worn out.” A tread depth of less than 2/32 of an inch on normal vehicles is illegal and very dangerous to that car and others around it. Georgia law also says buses and tractor trailers must have 4/32 of an inch of tread depth. Proper tread depth allows tires to grip the road and handle rain and snow properly.

Willcome said a driver should know best when tires are amiss. “If you’re going to have a tire problem, oftentimes that will be preceded by some kind of vibration.” Willcome continued, “You drive it every day, you know how it feels, so pay attention to how it feels. If something changes, you need to evaluate that — maybe take it to a mechanic, take it to your local tire professional. Let them take a look at it and make sure it’s good.”

Regular alignments and rotations, which you can also tell you might need when the car is vibrating, help keep tire wear even and prolong tire duration. Having mechanics regularly up close with your tires means they are more likely to notice irregularities. Drivers themselves do not have to be experts.

“Even if you don’t understand what’s going on, so you know when you need service — if there’s something going on with a tire, a belt, anything on your car, you just want to be aware.” Then Willcome really sold the point: “Just like distracted driving is bad, driving without awareness of your vehicle is not a good thing. Just pay attention and make sure your vehicle is up to snuff.”