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Time to Retire? : Experts Say Mileage Is No Way to Tell If Your Wheels Are Worn


You are nonchalantly zooming down Interstate 15 at your customary 70 m.p.h. when the first droplets of rain hit your windshield and you find yourself nervously wondering if you have an ounce of tread left on your tires.

Perhaps you don't remember or even know how to test your tires to see if they are balder than the national bird.

Although North County has scores of tire dealers and distributors ready to sell you new wheels, discount retreads, warranties, road-hazard packages and the like, it's clear that many motorists tempt fate when it comes to tire replacement.

Some motorists say they know it's time for new tires when they see the steel band showing through the rubber. Some rely on the penny test: Insert a penny into the tread and if you see the top of Lincoln's head, you need new tires.

And some just haven't given the whole issue much thought.

Here's the skinny on your balding tires.

How often does a car need new tires?

The number of miles on your tires has nothing to do with when it's time to buy new ones and the penny test is not a reliable indicator of wear, says Ken Knight, assistant manager of Winston Tire Co. in Encinitas. The "wear bar" is the only true test of when it's time to buy new tires.

Across the width of every tire in about six different spots is a row of raised bumps about a quarter of an inch wide. "Wear bars" are the same color as the tire and they are nestled below the tread, but it does not take a mechanic or special equipment to gauge when the tread is wearing near these bumps. When the tread wears down to this point (2/32nd of an inch), the tire is considered legally unsafe and must be replaced.

What kind of tires does a North County resident need for the climate and local terrain?

In some multi-weather regions of the country, motorists have as many different pairs of tires as they have shoes. However, in Southern California, the most suitable tires are all-season mud- and snow-rated tires.

The main function of these tires is their ability to disperse water and slush.

Metal studs, blocks, flanges, ridges, beads, cleats or any other metal or wood that protrudes beyond the traction surface of the tire is prohibited in California except between Nov. 1 and April 1.

If for some reason you have a burning desire to use your studded snow tires outside the November-to-April season--say, during August--you can apply for an extension with the California Department of Transportation.

Most drivers in North County who deal with snow only occasionally add chains to their regular tires when they need the additional traction.

What about road hazards such as nails and glass?

In the past eight years, the industry standard for radial tires has switched from fiberglass bands to double steel bands.

"If you run over a nail with one of the new dual steel-belted radials, it will hold the nail in place and you won't have a major blowout like you would with a polyglass tire," Knight said. "Usually, the nail puncture will create a slow leak that gives you time to get to a mechanic or gas station and it can be patched for about $10."

However, if the sidewall of your tire is pierced with a sharp object, replacing the tire is in order, Knight said.

Running over broken glass is not a concern with steel-belted tires, Knight said. Glass may become embedded in the tire tread, but it can't penetrate those steel belts.

How do I get the tire best suited for my car?

There are tire sizes to fit small, medium and large cars. Within each category, a variety of qualities and prices are offered.

Tires come as cheap as $18 a piece or as pricey as several hundred for a sport model. More typically, you'll pay $40 to $150 for a mid-size tire. For example, at Kennedy Firestone in Escondido, a bottom-of-the-line model sells for $37.43 (not including mounting or spin-balancing or tax) and carries a 40,000-mile guarantee. A top-of-the-line version at Winston Tire Co. costs $141 and has a 60,000-mile guarantee. (As you mentally add things up, keep in mind that you will most likely be buying a pair or a set of four.)

Most tire dealerships offer a variety of service packages, including extended-service warranties, road-hazard bonds, lifetime rebalancing and free mounting and rotation.

If you drive a lot, you'll want a tire rated for higher mileage than if you drive a moderate amount; if you have a car likely to last only another 30,000 miles, you probably don't need a 70,000-mile tire.

"Contrary to popular belief with the consumer, this type of business is monitored very closely by the Bureau of Automotive Repair," Knight said. "You (as a tire dealer) have to have a very good reason to sell that particular top-of-the-line tire, and when you sell it, there has to be a reason for that."

"Besides, we would go out of business if we sold everyone the top-of-the-line tire," Knight added pragmatically. "Nobody would ever buy tires again."

How often should tires be rotated?

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