North Ridgeville Tire Company
Mark Duncan  /  APfile
William Hall inspects a Cooper Discoverer tire at the North Ridgeville Tire Company in North Ridgeville, Ohio. Simple tire maintenance steps can help motorists drive more safely and save gas.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
updated 5/3/2006 1:42:51 PM ET 2006-05-03T17:42:51

With summer road trips edging ever closer and the average price of gas nearing $3, manufacturer associations and motorist safety groups are encouraging drivers to pay more attention to an often abused part of their vehicles — the tires.

The punishments meted out on these hoops of rubber that carry us safely down the road can be cruel, tire experts say. Many have worn-down treads that, while they function effectively in dry weather, can lead to dangerous hydroplaning in the wet, and plenty more vehicles have tires that are under-inflated, or overloaded, according to Matt Edmonds, vice president of the Tire Rack.

“It’s really all about maintaining air pressure — that’s how you get the best wear, fuel economy and performance out of your tires,” Edmonds said. “We use the simile of tires and shoes,” he added. “Those old shoes you’re wearing may feel comfy, but you don’t realize there’s a hole in bottom until you wear them out in the rain.”

If you haven’t so much as kicked your tires in the last few months, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a trade association for the rubber products industry, wants you to pay them some much-needed attention. The RMA launches its fifth annual National Tire Safety Week this week, teaming with tire retailers, auto dealers, safety advocates and state government agencies to help drivers learn simple steps to ensure that their tires are in good working condition.

Here are some startling statistics: A RMA survey found that each month three out of four drivers wash their car, but only about one in five correctly checks tire pressure, while more than 80 percent of drivers do not know how to properly check tire pressure.

What’s more, about one in every three cars has a significantly under inflated tire, and 660 fatalities and 33,000 injuries occur every year as a result of low tire pressure-related crashes according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). At the same time, the AAA says it receives about 4 million roadside assistance calls each year due to tire-related incidents.

“Not enough drivers are taking proper care of their tires and that can have an effect on vehicle safety,” said Donald Shea, President and CEO of the RMA. “Properly inflated tires promote safety, help tires last longer and maximize fuel efficiency.”

With the price of gasoline projected to rise over the summer, increasing fuel efficiency might be a prudent reason to pamper your rims. You can improve your gas mileage by around 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure the U.S. Department of Energy estimates. For every pound per square inch that all four of a vehicle’s tires are under-inflated, a driver’s gas mileage is lowered by 0.4 percent.

With the price of gas projected to rise over the summer, it pays to pamper your rims. Some 3.56 million gallons of gas are wasted each day because of incorrectly-inflated tires according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). You can improve your gas mileage by around 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure the DOE estimates. For every pound per square inch that all four of a vehicle’s tires are under-inflated, a driver’s gas mileage is lowered by 0.4 percent the DOE says.

An under-inflated tire increases rolling resistance, which cuts a vehicle’s fuel efficiency, and with an estimated 80 percent of drivers unable to check the pressure in their tires it’s not beyond the bounds of reason to think billions of gallons of gasoline are wasted on American roads each year, notes Edmonds at the Tire Rack.

“It’s pretty incredible when you think about it,” he said. “Typically, people come out of the winter under-inflated, and you might not have checked your tire pressure since the 30 degree weather,” he said. For every 10 degrees of temperature change you see about 1 pound of pressure change, and a tire loses about 1 pound every 60 days in natural depletion.”

Tire pressure is important, but there are actually better ways consumers can save money at the pump, according to Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at automobile information Web site

“The greatest enemy is aggressive acceleration and braking,” he said. Moderate drivers can save up to 37 percent of their fuel costs if they simply ease off the gas pedal, said Reed. Other tips to save on gas include clearing out the clutter in your trunk, and reducing your cruising speed to 65 miles per hour from 75 miles per hour would also mean gas savings of about 11 percent. “And you’ll save on speeding tickets too,” he quipped.

Pocketbooks aside, highway safety is of course the most important consideration when it comes to tires and driving, and even the issue is even more important when you read the latest data or highway accidents from the NHTSA. The latest estimates, released last week, showed that the estimated number of highway deaths in the United States rose slightly in 2005 to 43,200, hitting a 15-year high.

The data are preliminary and could be revised higher or lower when they are finalized in August, but they point to some worrying trends, said NHTSA spokesperson Rae Tyson. Motorcycle deaths rose for the eighth straight year and alcohol related accidents were higher, and while passenger car occupant fatalities declined slightly, light truck fatalities — which include minivans, SUVs and pickup trucks — rose by 4.3 percent.

“There’s a disturbing suggestion [in these preliminary data] that, when it comes to vehicle deaths, we may not have made any progress this year versus the prior year and it’s disheartening to us,” Tyson said. “Tire safety is very important, and it’s extremely important with light trucks. So right now is actually a good time to check into this because higher temperatures in the summer increase the stress on vehicle tires. Our research shows many people don’t pay attention to this and their tires are under-inflated.”

One year ago, the NHTSA said that within three years all new cars, minivans and pickup trucks sold in the United States will be required to have a system to warn the driver when a tire is under-inflated. Many vehicles already have tire pressure monitoring systems fitted as standard, or they are available as part of an upgrade package for a vehicle.

However, Tire Rack’s Edmonds says tire pressure monitoring systems can give drivers a false sense of security, and he recommends carrying a tire pressure gauge and says drivers use it on a regular basis. A tire’s correct pressure is usually printed on a sticker placed in the door jamb, or in the engine compartment he adds.

Edmonds notes that NHTSA has said the new tire pressure monitors should alert drivers when their tire pressure drops below 30 percent. At that point, the load bearing capacity of a car has dropped significantly. Edmonds says he and his colleagues tested this load capacity decrease on a BMW 3 Series Coupe 325Ci and found that its capacity had decreased so that only another 121 pounds in weight could be added.

“Just adding one person could make it overloaded,” Edmonds said. “And if the tire pressure fell by just 29 percent, you wouldn’t get warning and you couldn’t tell your tire pressure is low. That is how most people check air pressure — with their eyeballs, and not with a gauge, and you can’t really tell that way.”

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