Spare Tires: What You Need To Know To Stay Safe

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Stranded with a flat tire and no help available? Suddenly need that spare tire? Learn why you can’t rely on auto dealers to supply you with a spare, plus how you can take control of your own safety by equipping your car properly and changing your own tires.

Missing from the trunk?

One night, Sarah Hong received an urgent phone call from a woman whose two-seat sports car had a flat tire.

“No worries, right, since her husband knows how to change a tire,” says Hong, who at the time worked as a tow truck dispatcher. “Then they opened the trunk and discovered for the first time that their lovely new car didn’t come with any spare tire at all.”

Spare tires are disappearing from auto dealer showrooms. In order to improve fuel economy by reducing weight, nearly one-third of new vehicles don’t come with one as standard equipment, according to AAA.

This is a “growing concern” for AAA, says Greg Brannon, the organization’s director of automotive engineering and industry relations. “Being stranded on the side of the highway can be dangerous and scary for any driver, and not being able to remedy a flat tire quickly worsens the situation.”

Space instead of safety

Know what’s in your trunk. When purchasing a new vehicle, ask the auto dealer if it comes with a spare. Because they might not mention it to you on their own.

“It was such a small model, the manufacturers decided to save trunk space by skipping the spare entirely, leaving the owners completely dependent on roadside service companies,” says Hong. “If they had known that, they would never have purchased that model of car,” the owner told her.

If there’s no spare, “ask the dealer about adding a spare tire as an option,” says Brannon. “Although this is an up-front cost, it’s a good safety precaution.” Make sure that the option also includes a jack and tire iron.

If you do have a spare, periodically check its air pressure and re-inflate as needed. Also, spare tires can age while just sitting in the trunk. So, consult your owner’s manual to find out when to replace it, even if it has never been used. You don’t want to be caught on a freeway shoulder with two flats instead of one.

Tire inflators

Instead of a full sized spare, some new vehicles come with a tire inflator kit. Today’s models are more high-tech than the old-fashioned aerosol canisters that folks used to keep in the trunk. Like a small pump, it temporarily re-inflates the tire in a matter of minutes with pressurized gas. At the same time, it coats the interior with an air-resistant sealant.

Inflators work well only under limited circumstances, such as when a nail punctures and remains embedded in the tire. “However, in situations where there’s a blow out, side wall damage occurs or a tire is damaged by a curb strike, an inflator kit cannot provide even a temporary fix,” says Brannon.

If you purchase one separately, prices vary widely, with many models running under $100. Brannon advises kit owners to familiarize themselves with the user’s manual before hitting the road.

If you use an inflator, then take the tire to a garage for repairs, they may charge you extra to clean out the sealant. If the sealant makes the tire unserviceable, you might lose your tire manufacturer’s limited warranty.

The Run-Flat Problem

Approximately 14 percent of new vehicles come with “run-flat” tires, according to Edmunds. Designed to temporarily resist going flat, after a puncture you can still drive on it for approximately 100 miles.

That should get you to a service station or the next town, if you’re on a rural road. But you might have to wait overnight for a replacement tire, unless you can find a dealer that stocks them.

Many run-flat tires aren’t repairable. If damaged, you must purchase a new one — and they cost more than standard tires. Run-flats have approximately 6,000 miles less service life than standard tires,, also according Edmonds.

If you drive too fast or too long after a puncture, the tire can disintegrate. Plus, they don’t always protect against sidewall damage. “Even run-flat tires cannot remedy all situations,” says Brannon.

Like any safety accessory, having a spare tire is more important than the convenience of an empty trunk. “This foolish couple was more concerned with sporty looks of the car than its functionality in an emergency,” says Hong. When your time comes to change a tire, be prepared.

How to change your tire

Knowing how to change a flat tire properly can get you back on the road quickly and safely. Not knowing how can get you hurt.

Every year approximately 10,000 people visit the emergency room after suffering injuries while trying to use a jack or hoist, often while changing a tire, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Unless you are confident of your skills, call for help,” advises James Aubrey Solomon, Program Development and Training Director of Defensive Driving Courses at the National Safety Council. “Do you have a car insurance policy or warranty which offers roadside service? This is the safest avenue.”

However, should you find yourself with a flat tire and nobody to help, here’s how to do it yourself.

Be Prepared

Always keep the following items in your trunk:

  • spare tire, properly inflated
  • jack
  • one-foot square wooden board
  • 10w40 or similar spray lubricant
  • two tire blocks, bricks or heavy pieces of wood
  • flashlight
  • lug wrench
  • wheel lock key or lug nut key, if required (see below)

How it’s Done

1. If possible, park on a level spot at least ten feet away from traffic. Shift into Park and set the parking brake. If you have your vehicle owners manual, check it for any special instructions specific to changing your tires.

2. Raise the hood, deploy flares, turn on flashers or do whatever is necessary to assure that other drivers can see you changing the tire.

3. Block the tire that is diagonally opposite to the flat tire.

4. Using the chiseled end of the lug wrench, pry the wheel cover off the flat tire. You’ll see a set of large “lug nuts” screwed into the “lugs” that attach the tire to the wheel.

5. Using the socket end of the wrench, unscrew the nuts just a little. If they are too tight, try spraying them with the lubricant.

TIP: If your lug wrench doesn’t fit over the lug nuts, then your lug nuts are of a non-standard size, which is not uncommon. Ask your auto dealer or a parts store for the correct “wheel lock key” or “lug nut key” and keep it in your trunk.

6. Clear the ground of debris, place the square board on the ground, then place the jack on top of the board. Jack up the vehicle 2 to 3 inches above the ground.

TIP: For your safety, check your owners manual or ask your dealer for the right place to position the jack underneath the vehicle. Otherwise, it might not lift properly.

7. Remove the nuts and stow them where you can find them. Pull the flat tire off the lugs.

8. Place the spare tire over the lugs. Using your hand only — not the wrench — screw the nuts back on.

9. Using the jack, lower the vehicle until the spare tire barely touches the ground.

10. Using the lug wrench, tighten the nuts as much as possible.

Star Pattern order for removing and reinstalling lug nuts while changing a tire.
Star Pattern order for removing and reinstalling lug nuts while changing a tire. Image credit: JJuni; image adapted by the author.

TIP: To keep the tire balanced, don’t tighten them in order. Instead, tighten the first one, then tighten another one opposite or nearly opposite to the first one, and so on. This is called the “star” or “cross” pattern.

Tire image credit: Jjuni, with adaptations by the author.

11. Finish lowering the tire to the ground. Place the wheel cover back over the spare tire and push it in until it catches. If it doesn’t fit correctly, put it in the trunk until later.

12. Put the spare tire, jack, blocks and other items in the trunk and drive away.

If your spare tire looks smaller or different from the flat tire, then it may be only a temporary spare designed to get you back on the road.

“The car will not operate carefully in this situation and should not be driven in any traffic.” says Solomon. Visit a tire shop right away to replace it with a standard tire.

Practice changing a tire in your driveway or another safe location. You’ll work more quickly and feel more confident when faced with an actual flat. “If you have never changed a tire, this is not where you begin,” Solomon.

Then add a proper choice of tires and responsible driving habits for a safe and enjoyable day on the road.

David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.