Don't blow your summer vacation. And I mean that literally.
Consider what happened to Tia Johnson when she drove through Georgia early one morning.
"My tire blew at high speed right at the curviest turn on an exit ramp," says Johnson, a business development manager from Charlotte who publishes a website about traveling the American South called Just Her Carryon.
She totaled her Jeep and never made it to her destination. Luckily, she walked away from the accident without injury. Since then, she says she obsesses about her tires.
"I make sure they have a warranty and inspect them before trips," she says. "I also make sure to check the date on any new tires I receive."
Maybe we should all be a little obsessive. That's doable by buying the right tires for your summer road trip, inspecting them regularly and having a "plan B" if something goes wrong.
It looks like another big summer for driving. More than seven in 10 Americans are planning a road trip, according to the latest Hankook Gauge Index, a quarterly survey of American motorists. A Harris Poll of American drivers conducted on behalf of Bridgestone Americas found that while more than half of drivers have checked their tire pressure in the past three months, far fewer — 38% — have looked at their tread depth in the same period. And a study by Michelin suggests drivers are overconfident during the summer, which is the most dangerous time of the year for driving.
"Road trips are supposed to be fun," says Chris Burdick, the founder of Automoblog.net, a car site. "Tire blowouts or getting stranded in the middle of nowhere is a drag."
How to avoid tire trouble
"Coming out of the winter months, it is critical to inspect your tires or have a professional inspect your tires for unusual wear, proper tread depth, and tire inflation," says Ron Margadonna, a senior technical marketing manager at Michelin North America.
The reason: Tire inflation can change -- sometimes dramatically -- when the temperatures change. A drop of 10 degrees can equate to 1 pound per square inch drop in your tire inflation.
"As warmer weather comes in, it's important to ensure your tires are inflated to the specifications posted on the vehicle," he says.
A key to that is a thorough check-up by a pro. Most reputable tire stores will offer a free inspection. Experts say tread thickness is key. Tires are legally worn out at 2/32” of remaining depth. If you slide an inverted penny into the main groove in the middle of the tread and see the top of Lincoln's head, you don't have enough tread.
Find the right tire
Having the right tire is important, too. Make sure it's seasonally appropriate. A tire such as Michelin's Premier A/S tire, designed for wet-braking and wet-traction performance that you're likely to encounter in a summer rainstorm, promises to keep you safer on your summer road trip.
That's especially true if you're going camping and might take your car down an unpaved road this summer. For something like that, you might consider a specialized off-road tire such as the BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM3, which offers a tougher sidewall than standard tires and delivers better traction in mud and rocks.
If you're taking a long road trip, go with wheels with a reputation for comfort and reliability, such as the Toyo Open Country Q/T, which is designed for a quiet, long-distance ride and includes a 65,000-mile treadwear warranty. Ultimately, experts say, you should consult an expert who can match your car and driving style to the best tire.
Play it safe
But the best tires and inspections are useless if you don't know what to do with them.
I'm reminded of Bridget Carlson, who had a flat tire while driving through South Carolina on a recent Sunday. She quickly pulled over to change the tire — only to discover that her spare tire had a hole in it.
"We visited Walmart to buy a tire, just to find out that North Carolina has a blue law which prohibited the sale of tires, among many other things," says Carlson, who writes a popular hiking blog. She finally got help from a trucker, who lent her his repair kit.
Lesson learned? Inspect the spare tire before you leave.
Drivers such as Johnson, who survived a high-speed blowout, also don't push their limits. That means driving at safe speeds and paying as much attention to the tire as they do the rest of the vehicle.
Johnson makes sure her tires are rotated and filled to the right pressure before every road trip. For her, the tires are one of the most important parts of her driving experience. Maybe they should be for all of us.
Expert tire tips for your summer road trip
*Don't overload your car: Excess loads can put too much pressure on your vehicle’s tires, says Trevor Chapman, a spokesman for Farmers Insurance. "That increases the chance of a blowout." Check your owner’s manual or tire information placard for maximum recommended load limits.
*Rotate and align your wheels: Flats and blowouts can happen when the vehicle causes one side of the tread to wear rapidly. "It wears all the way through the tread and further until it’s worn down to the inside and the air escapes," says Woody Rogers, a product information specialist at Tire Rack. The fix? Have your tires rotated and aligned to prevent this kind of wear and tear.
*If you're not sure, ask: Tire pressure settings can be a little confusing. For example, the proper pressure your tires need is noted on a decal on the driver’s side door. "Don’t use the numbers molded on the side of the tire as a guide for pressure," notes Mike Calkins, a technical services manager for AAA. "This information relates to tire’s load capacity and not the correct pressure for your car’s tires."
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit elliott.org.