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How To Tell If You Need New Tires

Updated on July 28, 2016

Driving a car on bald tires is an accident waiting to happen. It's not worth chancing your safety or your family's with worn out tread, especially when it's easy to tell if you need new ones.

A visual inspection and tread depth measurement will provide signs that it's time to replace them. Before we look at those signs, let's clear up how important good rubber is.

Tires are your car's connection to the road. With out them, you'd go nowhere.

They help you accelerate, stop, and turn. With unsafe tires, you get little traction, may hydroplane, and risk a blowout, which could be fatal depending on the circumstances.

As you check visual signs and measurements listed in the article, remember: You have four tires, which means you should check each one individually.

Tire sidewall cracking

The sign of dry rotted tires includes small cracks on the sidewall or in between the tread groove. Dry rot occurs when the rubber breaks down because of weathering from the sun and from oxygen. Dampness from concrete or soil can also cause the cracking in between the tread grooves.

This is an indication that your tires are at the end of their useful life. Whether they are 10 years old or 2 months old, mileage is not an important factor when you see rubber cracking or sidewall cracking.

Tires in this condition may exhibit a slow leak and will eventually fail, leaving you with the task of changing a flat tire. Your tires need to be changed pronto.

A visual inspection is all that's needed to check for the cracking tell-tale sign. While checking for cracking, also visually inspect the sidewall for any bumps.


Bump in tire

A bulging sidewall looks like a bump in the side of the tire. This is bad and means the internal structure has been damaged.

You may have knocked your wheel against a curb a little too hard, have defective rubber from the factory, both, or something else that damaged it. Get it replaced ASAP because you might have a blowout.

Check tire tread with a penny

A penny can be used to check your tire tread depth. From the top of Abraham Lincoln's head to the tip of the penny is about 2/32". Tread depth less than this is unsafe.

Check the depth by inserting the penny, with Lincoln's head down and facing you, into the tread grooves.

If part of Lincoln's head is covered by your tire's tread, you still have at least 2/32" of tread depth remaining. This means your rubber is not completely worn out just yet.

If you see Lincoln's head every time you put a penny in the grooves, your tires are unsafe. You need new ones. This works well with tires that are almost shot, but changing them when the tread depth goes is at or below 4/32, which can be checked with a quarter, is advisable for safety.

Tread depth measurements

  • 10/32" -- Just bought new ones, huh?
  • 4/32" or more -- You're rolling.
  • 4/32" or less -- Sketchy. Replace soon.
  • 2/32" or less -- Get to the tire place today.

Watch the quarter test

Check tire tread with a quarter

New tire tread depth is about 10/32" and ones with tread wear that is more than 4/32" are in good shape. A quarter can provide the 4/32" measurement.

The distance between George Washington's head on a quarter and the tip of it is about 4/32"

Using the the same technique as the penny, insert Washington's head down and facing you into the tread grooves.

If part of Washington's head is not visible, you still have 4/32" of tread left.

If you see the Washington's head, now is the best time to schedule a tire change so you don't experience problems.

The penny and quarter method is the shade-tree mechanic way of checking rubber. A more scientific way is available.

Tread depth gauges

The depth measurement of tread can be measured with a gauge. These are inexpensive and are good if you like accurate measurements.

If you have a gauge, I suspect you already know how to use it.

Also, your tire may have a tread wear indicator bar. This is molded into the tread's groove and located at various spots on the tire.

If the molded bar is flush with the tread, it's time to change tires.

No excuses

Visually inspecting your tires and measuring the tread depth should be done once a week -- just like any preventive maintenance. While you are checking for problems, also check your air pressure.

Remember, though, the air pressure listed on the tires is not the correct pressure for your car. That number is the highest pressure that specific tire will withstand without blowing.

The recommend air pressure for your car's tires can be found in the owner's manual or on a small tag in the driver's door jam. Use that pressure to combat premature wear.

By using visual indications and taking depth measurements, you will know how to tell if you need new tires.


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