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Many drivers have underinflated tires

About a third of the light trucks and a quarter of the cars on U.S. roads have at least one substantially underinflated tire, a potentially deadly oversight, according to a government survey.
/ Source: NBC News

More than 33 million people will hit the roads this coming Labor Day weekend according to AAA, but a new study shows more than a quarter of all drivers are at risk of a deadly accident of their own making. The problem: tires. They’re not defective, but ignored by owners and low on air pressure, and without warning those tires may shred or blow out.

According to a survey released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 27 percent of cars and 32 percent of vans, pickups and sport utility vehicles had at least one tire that was underinflated. Eight percent of light trucks and 3 percent of cars had all four tires underinflated.

The survey estimates low tire pressure kills as many as 79 people a year with as many as 10,635 people a year injured.

Underinflated tires also can wear out more quickly and reduce fuel efficiency.

In many of the accidents involving Firestone tires, they were not inflated to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer. Firestone tire failures have been blamed in 203 deaths and more than 700 injuries.

The survey considered a tire underinflated if it was eight pounds per square inch or more below the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure. That’s 25 percent for a common recommended inflation pressure of 32 psi.

Data collectors stationed at gas stations around the country measured the inflation pressure of 11,530 tires during two weeks in February.

“People need to make it a regular part of their maintenance, not only to check the oil and the other fluids in the vehicle, but checking the tire pressure,” said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.

However, those that do check the tire pressure make a common mistake, according to the NHTSA. Most people use a gauge, but then make a mistake: they read the side of the tire for the psi — pressure per square inch — and then inflate. It’s confusing, because what you’re supposed to do is look inside the driver’s door for the correct pressure for your cars tires.

To make it easier, some car manufacturers now offer automatic tire pressure monitoring systems. It’s standard on new Corvettes with an onboard computer that checks the pressure in each tire, even when your driving down the road.

The federal government hopes by 2003 to make air pressure monitoring systems mandatory on all new cars.

Getting tire smart
The Rubber Manufacturers Association has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to encourage proper tire care called “Be Tire Smart - Play your PART.” PART stands for pressure, alignment, rotation and tread, the key aspects of tire maintenance.

Only 4 percent of respondents to a survey conducted for the association last year mentioned tire pressure checks when asked what routine tire maintenance is done on their vehicles.

Fifty-five percent did not know where to find the correct pressure recommendation for their tires, which is in the owner’s manual and on the vehicle doorjamb.

“It speaks on one sense for people’s faith in tires, that they expect them to go on forever, but they do need some basic care,” said association spokesman Dan Zielinski.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.