It’s every driver’s worst nightmare - you hear a sudden bang and your car loses balance, causing you to swerve violently. The consequences, you won’t need telling, are potentially catastrophic, whether it’s a smash into kerbside or, even worse, a lunge into oncoming traffic. Factor in bad weather and darkness at this time of year, and you really don’t want this to happen. Even if you bring the car to a halt without further incident, you’re looking at a lengthy stay by the roadside while the tyre is changed – by you, or by a professional who’ll want paying for his pains.
Why do blow-outs happen?
Anyone can get a puncture from a sharp object or chunk of debris lying in the road. But a blow-out is different. This is when there is a sudden and complete failure of the tyre, not a lengthy deflation that at least gives you the chance to slow down and stop safely.
Blow-outs are the result of a tyre being faulty, damaged, worn, over-stressed or under-inflated. The last of these is a prime culprit if the tyre is not in good nick. The component parts of the tyre aren’t protected as the manufacturer intended, they suffer damage, even during normal use on a smooth road, and eventually cause the tyre to fail. Factor in potholes – and we know all about potholes – and problems become much more likely. And if the car is carrying excess weight or towing a heavy load, the situation will be exacerbated. According to latest Department for Transport figures, defective, illegal or underinflated tyres were responsible for 17 fatal accidents in the UK in 2013, as well as 122 serious accidents and 517 minor accidents.
If the worst happens…
So what action can you take if you suffer a blow-out? Your first instinct if a tyre blows out will probably be to slam on the brakes as hard as possible, but this is the worst thing you can do. Braking sharply is likely to cause the car to spin out of control, so try to resist the urge to do it, however natural a response it might seem. Instead, you should keep looking ahead and try to keep your car traveling in a straight line, applying slight pressure on the accelerator until you’ve regained control of the vehicle. Your car will feel as if it’s pulling you to one side, so you will need to keep a steady grip on the wheel and counter-steer to correct this. Yanking the wheel too hard could cause the car to roll over, so move it slowly but firmly. Let the car lose speed naturally until you’ve come to a safe stopping place. Put your hazard lights on and call your breakdown cover provider for help, or contact a local garage.
Wheel of fortune
Tempting as it may be to change the wheel for your spare, remember that other components of your car could have been damaged when the tyre blew. It’s therefore worth getting your car thoroughly checked over before fitting the spare wheel. If you’re on the motorway, you should never attempt to change a wheel on the hard shoulder yourself, regardless of the circumstances. Instead, get well behind the safety barrier and away from the car while you wait for assistance.
There will be times when you can do nothing to avoid a tyre blowout, for example if you run over a sharp object at speed which you didn’t see. But there are plenty of maintenance checks you can do regularly to help reduce the chances of a blowout happening. First and foremost, you should regularly check your tyres’ pressure to make sure they aren’t under or over-inflated. If the pressure isn’t right, then the sides of your tyre can ‘over-flex’ causing them to split or crack. It’s a good idea to give your tyres a quick once over every two or three weeks, to see if there are any signs of cuts or bulges or cracks – if there are it’s time to change them. It’s usually under-inflated tyres that will place you most at risk, as this causes the tyre to bulge and ripple at high speeds. As there is more of the tyre in contact with the road, because the pressure of the car is pushing down on it, this leads increased heat and friction, sometimes causing tyres to catch fire.
Try the 20p tread test
You should also keep a careful eye on your tyres’ tread. Legally, the tread should be at least 1.6mm, but you should ideally aim for at least 3mm. This test also works with a £2 coin.A good way to test a tyre’s tread is to insert a 20p coin into the tread. If you can’t see the outer edge of the coin, then the tread is legal. Remember if the tread isn’t within the legal limit, you could be fined as much as £2,500 and get three penalty points on your licence. If your tread is very worn, you’ll need to replace your tyres – ideally you should do this every five to seven years anyway. A recent survey by road safety charity Brake found seven in 10 UK drivers (70%) did not know the legal minimum tyre tread depth for their vehicle. A separate survey of young drivers found one in three (34%) never check their tyre tread depth and one in four (25%) never check tyre pressure, putting them at much greater risk of a blowout. These basic checks aren’t difficult, so don’t neglect them – it could just save your life.