- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

I remember being very impressed a few years ago when I came across a U.S. government report that listed the three most common causes of highway breakdown. There was nothing highfalutin’ about the statistics, but their cold, clear message was prima facie evidence that most drivers ignore many simple and basic tenets of automotive maintenance and care.

The survey showed that the No. 1 cause of highway breakdown is running out of gas. Talk about something that is completely avoidable. Talk about basics of automotive maintenance. The No. 2 cause was tire trouble of one sort or another, while No. 3 on the list was cooling-system problems. It’s the second one, tires, that I want to discuss.

We’ve all had tire problems at some point. With today’s superior tires, however, the blowouts, tread separation or other maladies that plagued older, less sturdy tires are far less common. But things still happen on the highway and cars are still disabled by tire problems. Just witness their high ranking on the disabled list.

The highway patrols that gathered data for the study reported another finding that didn’t surprise me: People who had tire problems couldn’t get going again because they either didn’t have a spare tire or if they did, it was flat. A spare is something we don’t think about very much. Buried back there in the trunk, it leads a cloistered life.

There is no more sinking feeling than to be out on the highway with a tire problem only to find, after opening the trunk, that the spare is flat. Even worse is knowing that the reason it’s flat is because you didn’t take time to check it out periodically.

Don’t just look at the tire — you can’t tell if it is inflated by just looking. Don’t just feel it, either. That can be misleading. Get your tire pressure gauge out and verify that the spare is fully inflated. If you don’t have a gauge, there’s no better time than now to purchase one.

Perform an in-the-trunk check each month. While you’re at it, see that you have an operational jack and lug wrench too. A fully inflated spare is no good if you don’t have the equipment to mount it.

If you own a newer car with the “funny” tire spare — a small, space-saver spare — remember that once it is put on the wheel you should limit your speed, usually to under 50 mph. These spares are not meant for normal use and should be taken off as soon as possible. They are meant to be used only until the regulation tire is repaired. Please remember to follow the owner’s manual procedure for changing a flat tire. Procedures can vary considerably from car to car.

And don’t let yourself get stuck for yet another reason. Newer cars can have little lug wrenches that are usually placed in the glove box. In case you don’t know what it’s for, it’s used to take off the wheel covers. It’s an anti-theft device.

If you can’t get the wheel cover off, you won’t be able to change the flat. Be sure you have the hubcap removal tool and know how to use it.

Your owner’s manual contains all the information about using the spare and removing the hubcap wheel covers with the special wrench.

I know, I know. Many of you are saying that this is elementary stuff and why waste space on it.

If it were so elementary, tire problems wouldn’t be the second most common cause of grounded cars. So don’t get caught with a flat spare tire. There’s no time like right now to go out there and make sure it doesn’t leave you flat when you need it most.

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