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Don't get burned by your tires this summer

YOUR WHEELS

Wear and improper inflation can lead to dangerous blowouts, especially when it's hot.

August 04, 2004|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

Your sunglasses are waiting on the dashboard. The cooler is full of ice and sodas. Your collection of CDs is on the front seat. And the luggage is packed in the hatchback.

Everything is ready for your end-of-summer family vacation. Or is it? There's one item that is easy to forget but could have some terrible consequences if neglected.

Tire pressure.

Driving on bald or under-inflated tires on hot summer days can lead to disaster, auto safety and tire experts warn. Underinflated tires fail because they overheat, which leads to the breakdown of the tire's internal structure.

Improper inflation also can reduce your ability to control your vehicle. Dangerous tire blowouts occur more during summer months than at any other time of the year, safety advocates say. If you are traveling in an SUV or pickup truck, the risk can be even greater.

Despite the risks in driving on bald or improperly inflated tires, motorist neglect is surprisingly high. A survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2001 found 27% of passenger cars nationwide were being driven with one or more tires substantially underinflated. For SUVs and light trucks, occurence rose to 32%.

Improperly inflated and worn tires can also lead to deadly rollover crashes, says Liz Neblett, NHTSA spokeswoman. Besides the risk of blowouts, poor tire condition can also cause a vehicle to slide sideways off the road on wet or slippery pavement, increasing the risk of rolling over.

Certainly, proper tire maintenance is always important for vehicle safety. But as temperatures continue to rise this month, motorists need to pay even more attention to the health of their tires, says Dave Skaien, automotive specialist with the Automobile Club of Southern California.

"On days when the mercury hits the 90s and 100s, the number of Auto Club members experiencing breakdowns increases by 50%," Skaien says. In Southern California alone last summer, the Auto Club changed 152,740 flat tires.

"Properly inflated tires last longer, run quieter, grip better, increase fuel mileage and safely support and control your vehicle," says John Rastetter of the Tire Rack, a company that retails tires and also conducts independent tire testing.

Based on the results of NHTSA's 2001 survey, the company estimates that of 221.8 million registered passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks on the road, 65 million of them are being driven with one or more underinflated tires.

A trade group survey found that only 14% of drivers properly check their tire pressure and 45% wrongly believe that if they are taking a trip with a fully loaded vehicle, they are better off if their tires are underinflated.

Motorists neglect tires because they forget to routinely check them or they don't know how to accurately check tire pressure. Additionally, some pressure gauges on gas station air pumps provide inaccurate readings, Rastetter says.

It's also important to know that you can't tell if your tires are properly inflated just by looking at them. In fact, safety advocates say that a tire can be at half the recommended level of inflation and still appear to be perfectly normal.

But help may be on the way. Several automakers now offer Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS). These systems are designed to warn drivers if tire pressure is low. Unfortunately, most of the systems come exclusively on high-end vehicles.

During the Clinton administration, NHTSA called for all vehicles to be equipped with monitoring systems by the 2006 model year. But after inaccuracies in some systems were found, NHTSA now is looking at a more accurate monitoring system. It's uncertain when the new compliance requirements will be announced.

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Tire tip sheet

Here's a list of summer driving tips from the Auto Club, Rubber Manufacturers Assn. and other tire experts:

Check tire pressure once a month or every other time you gas up. Use a quality air pressure gauge to check the pressure, or go to a qualified service station for assistance. Inflate tires to the pressure recommended in your vehicle owner's manual. Do not underinflate or overinflate them.

Inspect your tires for uneven or excessive wear. Look for bulges, cuts, blisters on the sidewalls, nails or screws.

Do not overload your vehicle. When loading passengers and cargo, be aware of how much weight is being added, and check your vehicle's tire pressure recommendations for additional weight.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanrite@aol.com.

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