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5 simple tire safety tips

I’m a writer, not a wrench guy. A marketer, not a mechanic. Better with a keyboard than a dashboard. (You see where I’m going here.)

But I also have a pretty long daily commute, take the occasional road trip, drive around on countless weekend errands, and have an active family life in general. In short, I spend a lot of my life in the car. So staying safe on the road is important to me. So is saving a buck whenever I can.

As long as you follow your car’s recommended maintenance schedule, you should have your bases covered, right? Wrong. Periodically checking your tires is also important. Poor tire condition is a leading cause of accidents, according to a National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey report.

Last fall, after a long-ignored tire sensor, a pothole, a near accident, and an unbudgeted tire replacement later, I learned firsthand that it’s better for my safety and my wallet to make this a new routine.

If you aren’t an “under the hood” type you may not know what to look for. No problem. I got your back.

Here are five tire safety factors and simple tips to check them.

Tire tread

If you have a tire issue, the main culprit is usually tread depth. A typical tire starts with 10/32” tread. When the tread depth reaches 2/32″ the tire is legally worn out in most states. Two quick ways you can check this: use a tire gauge or try the penny trick.

I keep a tire depth gauge in my glove box now and you can pick up a decent one online for anywhere from $5 to $60, depending on your taste and brand affinity. Don’t want to spring for one?

You can also use the penny trick. Simply place the penny head first into several tread grooves across the tire. If you see the top of Lincoln’s head, your treads are worn and likely need replaced. If part of Lincoln’s head is covered by the tread, you should have more than 2/32 of an inch of tread depth remaining.

Wear patterns

Perform a simple visual inspection for uneven wear patterns can also reveal some clues that your tires need attention. If it’s wearing in middle it may be overinflated. If it’s wearing on the sides it may be underinflated or need a rotation.

Tire pressure

Check for proper inflation on a regular basis—it’s one of the easiest ways to ensure optimal gas mileage (saving you money) and your safety. Tire sensors on newer vehicles make it a lot easier to tell if something is off based on the level that’s been set for the sensor.

Regardless of whether or not you have a tire sensor, be sure you set the pressure to the prescribed level. Don’t use the pressure that’s noted on the tire’s sidewall—that’s the maximum pressure allowed for the tire. The optimal level is noted on the placard on the driver’s side doorjamb in most cars.

You can have it checked and set each time you go in for your vehicle’s regular maintenance check/oil change, or you can check it more frequently yourself with a tire gauge.

Bonus tip: It’s often overlooked, but you should check your spare tire every time you check the tire pressure of the other tires on your car.

Regular rotation

In addition to checking your tire pressure, be sure to also have your tires rotated every 5,000 – 7,000 miles. This helps tires wear at the same time. And when you put new tires on, put them on the back axle first. It will help you keep control of your car on wet roads.

Good quality tires

The old adage is true, that “you get what you pay for.” The cheapest tires aren’t always the best value. The true cost of a tire is how long it will last before wearing out. Your vehicle’s manufacturer recommends the size and type of tires that work best. You can find that information the owner’s manual and on the doorjamb placard. Here are a couple of resources I found useful when shopping for tires:

What you need to know when buying new tires—Popular Mechanics

Tire Buying Guide—Consumer Reports

So there you have it—this non-car guy’s simple tips to help you check and maintain the health of your tires.