Blowout: Can You Handle It?

flat tireOne thing they don't teach you in driver's ed (well, most driver's education courses) is how to handle a tire blowout at speed. Tire failures are much less common today than in the past because of advances in technology, the recent Firestone recall included.

And as that recall proved, a blowout can lead to catastrophic results. The tread separations that occurred while vehicles were traveling at highway speeds resulted in a dramatic loss of stability and even directional control, largely due to the vehicles' weight shifting and thus becoming unbalanced.

That kind of problem is much more an issue with SUVs and trucks, because of their higher center of gravity. But passenger cars can be subject to unanticipated, violent alterations in attitude as a result of a major tire failure, too.

Like anything else, the key is to remain calm and, ideally, be prepared to do the right thing in the event a tire fails on you.

The most important thing, obviously, is to retain control of the vehicle. You want to keep it on the road, pointed in the right direction, and avoid swerving into other lanes, or off the road into a tree.

Slippery when wet

Bear in mind that if it's raining or the road is wet, these conditions will be made worse. Your three- or four-thousand-pound vehicle sticks to the road through four rather small "contact patches" (e.g., the surface of each tire in contact with the road). When you lose a tire, you've not only lost up to 25 percent of your connection to the road, you've also altered the way the vehicle will handle and brake -- because weight shift has occurred and the vehicle is no longer on an even keel.

If a front tire goes out — and we're not talking about a gradual leak here, but rather a catastrophic failure — the vehicle will tend to pull toward the left or right, depending on which side has the bad tire. If a rear tire goes (particularly on a rear-wheel-drive car or truck), the vehicle's tail will want to slide around, or "fishtail" — a very dangerous situation that can lead to a spinout and complete loss of directional control.

It is critical to do two things: ease gently off the gas and retain a firm grip on the wheel. One reason why one-handed driving is so dangerous, incidentally, is that if anything happens that causes the wheel to jerk, the driver will not have control and an accident will almost surely occur.

While gently easing into the brakes, keep the vehicle pointed straight ahead and gradually reduce your speed. Pull off the road without making any radical steering inputs; the idea is to just drift to the shoulder and come to a stop. Get as far out of the way of traffic as possible and hit those hazard flashers.

Do not hit the brakes hard or move the steering wheel abruptly. These are of course instinctive reactions — but they are absolutely the worst things you could possibly do. Violent braking will further destabilize the vehicle by causing a rapid transfer of weight from back to front. If your front tire has shredded, that means most of the weight of the vehicle is now pressing down on that one remaining good tire. If you don't wreck, it will be an act of God.

Similarly, jerking the wheel in reaction to a tire blowout will almost always result in a skid. Few drivers have the experience and training to recover a vehicle once it has begun to skid, so the idea is to avoid skidding out in the first place. Be calm, use the brakes carefully and do not spin the wheel around like you're the captain of the Titanic. These are the basics to saving your bacon and keeping the damage down to one dead tire, instead of a totaled car and injured people.

Check your pressure

An afterthought: It should be pointed out that in our era of self-service gas stations, many people neglect to check their tires for underinflation. Low tire pressure creates heat and friction — and can precipitate tire failure. This was almost certainly a factor in the Bridgestone/Firestone imbroglio. Significantly low tire pressure can also cause your car or truck to handle strangely, and will increase braking distances.

Accordingly, make it a point to periodically check your tire pressure – the correct figure, in pounds per square inch, or psi, will be listed either in the owner's manual, on a sticker inside the door jamb, or on the tire itself. Most tires are properly inflated at between 28 and 34 psi, although some high-performance tires demand significantly higher pressures.

You can buy a good quality tire pressure gauge for under $8 at any auto parts store. If you don't want to do this yourself, then ask an attendant at a gas station to do it for you at least once every two to three weeks. And always eyeball your tires before you get in and drive off. If any of them look low or have signs of damage (e.g., a bulge in the sidewall or steel belts/cords showing through the tread), have it checked out and fixed ASAP, and avoid driving the car at high speed until you have the problem corrected.

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