5 Warning Signs You Need New Tires

By: Christopher Lampton  | 

Image Gallery: Car Safety Do you know the warning signs that indicate you need new tires? See more car safety pictures.
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Just as your feet are sore after a long walk, the tires on your car take a beating every time you drive. This isn't a sign of bad driving --well, not usually -- but rather an inevitable fact of life. Tires get old and worn down. And because a tire failure while you're driving can be catastrophic, causing your car to go out of control or leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere without any easy way to get home, you want to know when your tires are in bad shape so you can get new ones before something goes wrong. Of course, if you have a mechanic look at your car periodically, he or she will probably tell you if the tires need to be changed, but there are several things you can do yourself short of a visit to your local auto center to make sure your tires are in good shape.

We've listed five of the warning signs that indicate you need new tires (in no particular order) over the next few pages.

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5: Tread Depth

How much tread depth do you have left? It'll only cost you a penny to find out.
How much tread depth do you have left? It'll only cost you a penny to find out.
Hemera/Thinkstock

The tread on your tires should never fall below 1/16 of an inch (1.6 millimeters) in depth. If you regularly drive on slick, wet surfaces, you'd be even better off with twice that much. You can buy a gauge to measure the tread depth the way the professionals do, but there's an old trick that will give you a rough idea of how much tread depth you have left and it won't cost you more than a penny.

In fact, it requires a penny. Take a Lincoln-head penny, the kind you find in your change every day, and insert Abe's head (head-down) into the tread. If Lincoln's entire head remains visible, you don't have enough tread. Take your car into the mechanic and ask about getting a new set of tires.

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4: The Tread Wear Indicator Bar

Evidence of flat rubber bars running perpendicular to the direction of the tread indicate you need new tires.
Evidence of flat rubber bars running perpendicular to the direction of the tread indicate you need new tires.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Newer tires have a convenience that older tires lacked. They have tread wear indicator bars built into the tires themselves. These bars, invisible or barely visible when the tires are new, gradually begin to appear as the tread wears down. They appear as flat rubber bars running perpendicular to the direction of the tread itself. If more than one or two of these are visible on a tire, the tread is getting low. This should be particularly obvious in the wet tracks that your tires leave after you drive through a puddle. Use the penny test described on the previous page to double check the depth, but if the bars are starting to appear on any or all of your tires, it's once again time to check with your mechanic or local tire dealer to see about getting your current tires replaced.

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3: Cracks in the Sidewall

Cracked and weathered sidewalls are a bad sign, too.
Cracked and weathered sidewalls are a bad sign, too.
Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock

Not all problems with the tires are going to be in the tread. They can also appear in the sidewall. Fortunately, it's easy to do a visual check of sidewall problems. Look for tracks or cuts in the sidewall -- grooves that are distinct enough to be visible to the naked eye. This could be a sign that your tire is developing a leak (or worse, that it's nearly ready to blow out). This is definitely something you want to avoid. So if the cracks in the sidewall are starting to look serious, get that car to a repair shop at the next opportunity and start talking about getting them replaced. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

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2: Bulges and Blisters on the Tire

A bulge or a blister on your tire could lead to a blow out.
A bulge or a blister on your tire could lead to a blow out.
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Sometimes the outer surface of the tire begins to weaken. The result can be a bulge or blister that extends outward from the rest of the surface. This is similar to an aneurysm in one of your blood vessels and you know that if your doctor tells you that you have an aneurysm, you'd better get to the hospital as quickly as you can before you blow out an artery. It's the same with your tire. This weak spot can cause a sudden blow out, and if you don't put the car in the hospital (or service center, as the case may be) before this happens, it may end up putting you in the hospital when the tire blows out on the freeway. So keep your eye on those tire bulges and blisters.

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1: Too Much Vibration

Too much vibration is almost always a sign that something is not quite right.
Too much vibration is almost always a sign that something is not quite right.
Manabu Ogasawara/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

A certain amount of vibration is inevitable when driving, especially on poorly paved roads, but if you've been driving for a while, you probably know how much vibration feels right and how much means that something's going wrong. There can be any of a number of causes for the vibration -- maybe your tires are misaligned or unbalanced, or your shock absorbers are starting to go. But it could also indicate that there's some sort of internal problem in the tire itself. Even if the tire isn't the root cause of the vibration, the vibration could damage the tire and pretty soon you'll have a problem. So if your car has a bad case of the shimmy-shimmy shakes, especially if you notice this when you aren't driving on bad roads, take it to the mechanic right away to have it checked out. Too much vibration is almost always a sign that something is wrong.

For more information about tires and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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Originally Published: Aug 11, 2010

Replace Tires FAQ

How long do tires last on average?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this question but tires definitely have an expiration date. Generally, experts are of the opinion that tires should be inspected after six years and be replaced after 10 years no matter how effective they seem.
How much does it cost to replace tires?
Most all-season tires can cost between $50 and $200, while their average price varies between $80 and $150. SUV or pickup drivers, on the other hand, may cost anywhere between $50 and $350, with an average cost of around $100 and $250 per tire.
How can you tell if tires need to be replaced?
One tried and true method is with the Lincoln penny tread depth test. Grab a penny and place it into the tread of your tire with Lincoln's head down. Now look to see how much of Lincoln's head is showing. If any part of his head is still hidden by your tire's tread, they're still good to go. But, if you can't see any of Honest Abe's face, it's time to replace.
Is it OK to replace two tires at a time?
Mixing two different models or brands of tires may result in an unstable drive. If you must, add the new tires at the rear of your vehicle and make use of the old tires in the front. This helps prevent oversteer on slick roads.
At what tread depth do you replace tires?
The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends you replace tires when they reach a tread depth of 2/32 inches (1/16 of an inch).

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • America's Service Station. "What Are The Signs That You'll Need New Tires?" (Aug. 5, 2010) http://www.wefixeverything.com/tires.htm
  • Dunlop Tires. "Care & Maintenance -- FAQs: How Do I Know When I Need New Tires?" (Aug. 5, 2010) http://www.dunloptires.com/care/faqs.html#needTires
  • Goodyear Tires. "How Do I Know When I Need New Tires?" (Aug. 5, 2010) http://www.goodyeartires.com/faqs/Rotation.html
  • The Auto Doc. "What are the signs that you need new tires?" (Aug. 5, 2010) http://www.theautodoc.net/pdfs/Tips%20New%20Tires.pdf

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