Checking a car's tires for wear and tear

5 Signs You Need New Tires

Take it from former race-car driver Johnny Unser—checking for telltale warnings of a worn-out tire is more important than you think.

“Checking your tires is like going to the dentist,” says Unser, five-time veteran of the Indy 500. “It’s something we don’t do often enough, that we put off until we absolutely have to.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tire failure causes around 11,000 car crashes each year. Both Unser and NHTSA recommend doing a quick tire inspection once a month to see if you need new tires.

How To Tell If You Need New Tires: What To Look For

  1. Bulges, gouges or cracks
    When a tire deflates, it bulges at the sides. Unser says this is a sign of low tire pressure or a slow air leak. “If you see cracks in the sidewall, gouges or anything that looks odd, take it in to your dealer and have them look at it.”
  2. Tread wear
    One of the best ways to tell if you need new tires is the old-school penny test: Place a penny into the tread, with Lincoln’s head pointing down. If you can still see the top of his noggin, the tread is dangerously low. Most modern tires, however, have wear bars: bits of rubber woven into the pattern at a specific depth. “You can find the wear bars that go across the groove, and if the tread pattern is worn down to that wear bar, you need to replace your tire,” says Unser.
  3. Tire pressure
    Tires deflate at a rate of about one pound per square inch (PSI) per month. “You’re not going to wear your tires down in a month,” Unser says, “but you should check that you have the right inflation pressure.”
  4. Temperature Changes
    Tire pressure drops in extreme cold. The challenge in summer, says Unser, is “excessive heat buildup in the tire.” If you’re heading out on a road trip with an underinflated tire, it will generate more heat and wear out faster.
  5. Vibration
    Watch out for vibration or thumping when you’re driving. If it feels like it’s coming from under the seats, the rear tires may be out of balance. Vibration from the steering wheel could indicate suspension issues. Unser says anything less than a smooth ride means you should take your car in to the dealer.

When it’s time to replace your tires, Unser recommends doing so in pairs or all four at a time for better performance and traction and, ultimately, a safer ride.

From a flat tire to a car that won’t start, be ready for anything with GEICO’s 24-hour Emergency Roadside Service.

By Maria Carter

Next article: Top 5 Tire Myths Debunked

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    Leave a comment

  1. Zach Thalman says,

    The tread wear and pressure are what I am most familiar with because they are very important especially in the winter. I have never thought about vibration or temperature. I may have to pay more attention to that. I know with temperature it can make the pressure go down because it is cooler.

  2. Virginia Davis says,

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve been wondering if I need new tires on my car. The tread has looked kind of worn out to me. I will be sure to try the penny trick. Do you have any specific suggestions for what to look for if I do need new tires?

  3. Chase Wilson says,

    Interesting! I didn’t know that an under-inflated tire could cause heat build up. Quicker wear seems obvious, but heat buildup makes a little bit less sense. Are car tires difficult to replace on your own, or should I just take it to my local shop?

    • sulcopete says,

      You’ll be needing to visit a tire shop – removing and installing car tires on rims requires special equipment. As for heat buildup from an under inflated tire….imagine bending a piece of rubber back and forth as fast as you can….like bending a wire clothes hangar back and forth in the same spot until it snaps. Then imagine a tire spinning at highway speeds and the tire quickly changing shape with each rotation at the contact patch where that giant bulge is because the tire is low on air. What’s really amazing is that there aren’t more deaths every year due to under inflated tire failures on hot summer days. It’s a testament to how well built tires are nowadays to be able to put up with the abuse. You should check your tire pressures with a hand held gauge monthly at a minimum.

  4. sean says,

    Thank you for pointing out that vibration generally means that you should take the car into the dealer. I think, especially with old cars, it is common to think that vibration is natural. However, as you said, if it is coming from the rear tires, and the fix is simple, it will be well worth it to get it taken care of.

  5. Yvon says,

    Thanks for your easy list on how to know when to replace your tires or not. I was driving down the highway the other day, and the person in front of me blew a tire. He seemed OK and didn’t hit anyone, but it was still a scary experience. I wanted to make sure that that doesn’t happen to me.

  6. Julie Myers says,

    Recently I have been concerned that I need new tires. I would really like to be able to get some new tires since mine are wearing out, and I definitely don’t want them to blow while I am driving. My tires seem to have some cracks in them, and the tread is definitely worn down. I will be sure to replace all four tires at the same time to be sure that it is done well and that the tires are safe to drive on. Thank you for the great post!

  7. Jackson Willis says,

    I had no idea that temperature could be an indicator of needing new tires. It’s definitely important to look into something like this. I know that I would want to stay as safe as possible when driving my car around. Having good tires in place is definitely a major way to do that and people should try to focus on it.

  8. Susan Hirst says,

    Thank you for this information. I’ve never been very good at telling if I need new tires or not. I know how to check tire pressure, but that is about it. Your advice about checking for bulges, gouges, or cracks was very helpful. I’ll be sure to do that.

  9. Wally West says,

    This is very helpful information, and share some great tips identifying the need for new tires. The tires on my wife’s vehicle are getting very worn out, and I need to figure something out. I have also noticed a bulge on one of the tires, which makes me very nervous. I need to find a place that sells tires, and go look at what they have for this vehicle.

  10. Quin Trent says,

    My car tires showed one of those five signs and that is why I replaced my tires. They were causing my car to vibrate pretty bad and it turned out that they were pretty worn out. That is why I replaced them when I did. Now my car rides perfectly smooth with no kinds of issues.

  11. Deanna R. Jones says,

    I can see why it’s so important to check your tires before driving. My tires blew out while I was driving on the freeway the other day. Fortunately, I was able to get new tires so that I can drive back home. I want to be sure that my tires never blow out while I’m driving the car again, so it helps to know about what I should keep an eye out for to make sure that my tires are in tip top shape. It seems like I should watch out for vibrations that are coming from my car while I’m driving more than anything else. I noticed that there were strange vibrations and thumping coming from my car about a week before my tires blew out. It never occurred to me that the tires vibrate because my rear tires are out of balance. I’ll be sure to pay attention to that from now on when I’m driving, as well as check for any wear and tear on my tires.

  12. Ashley Reed says,

    My tires needed to be aligned, and there was a small vibrating in the car. I didn’t even connect the dots before, I think it all stopped once I got it aligned. The tires need to be rotated soon, if not replaced entirely, they are getting pretty bald.

  13. Doris Hellermann says,

    Thanks for your tips on when tires need to be replaced. My dealer told me mine are coming due and now I know how to check them to see if I agree. I replaced the original set of tires at a little over 30,000 miles with tires recommended by the dealer. One tire developed a slow leak after less than six months and was not covered by the warranty due to road hazard. I went to a tire dealer who told me I had hit one of those shiny things in the middle of the road that let you know when you’re too close to the other lane. He said they see lots of leaks caused by them and one person’s tire had the little varmint still sticking in his tire. Our laws don’t allow the leak to be repaired because it’s on the side of the tire, not in the tread. I’m a little over 75,000 miles now.

  14. Mia Boyd says,

    Thanks for the information. I just bought a used car and the tires look awful. Plus, they don’t have a lot of traction, especially when the roads are wet. I think it might be time to have them replaced. Do you have any tips for me? I’ll make sure I do my research and choose the best tires possible.

  15. Edmond Vandergraff says,

    I have tried the old penny test a couple of times, and just this past week I realized how dangerously low my tread was on my car. Thank you so much for this information as well. I took chemistry a long time ago, and I completely forgot how much temperature decreases the pressure in a tire. I’m going to have to take my car in for sure before I have a blowout.

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