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Earth Sense: Taking care of tires keeps you safe on road
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It’s 3 p.m., traffic on Interstate 985 is heavy, and some poor soul in the emergency lane is trying to install the spare wheel on his car.

Tire blowouts aren’t as common as they were in the bad old days of bias-ply tires. Today’s radials have more resiliency than the rubber had on my 1974 Plymouth. But they are often neglected, with risky consequences.

One has to visualize that the entire weight of the car is borne by four areas no larger than the palm of one’s hand. Roadways are very hot this time of the year.

When you look at the parked car, you’ll see that each tire looks somewhat flat at the bottom by design. The tire isn’t completely round while it’s rolling. The rubber is constantly changing shape during operation. The lower its inflation, the more deformation takes place.

Therefore, it’s important to keep the correct air pressure in each tire, and check it weekly. Even a $1 tire gauge is better than not using one at all. Some gas stations provide air hoses, but they are often inaccurate and sometimes poorly maintained.

People with several cars, or high-mileage drivers, will find it useful to buy a compact air compressor. That way you can maintain your tires at home without the stress of doing it in a hurry at a gas station.

Each tire has the maximum pressure printed on its side, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping it at that level always. The tire will reward you with longer usable life, safer ride and less likelihood of a blowout or even fire due to overheating.

When shopping for new tires, ignore the color brochures and compare different models for three ratings also shown on each sidewall: tread life, temperature resistance and traction. Depending on driving style and road conditions, this helps in selecting the most suitable model.

Some stores offer “super discounts” on what’s advertised as factory-new tires. They may be unused, but they spent years in a warehouse before being sold in bulk to the discounter.

Expect a clear answer about their age before buying. Groups like the British and Japanese manufacturers’ associations state that safe tire life ends at five to six years. Driving on old ones, even with good tread, puts you at risk of becoming the tinkerer on the side of I-985 someday.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at

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