Getting a flat tire is a real nuisance. At best it delays your journey, at worst it can cost you a lot of money and even place you in danger.
Punctures are just bad luck and you can’t stop them happening, so the next best thing is knowing exactly what to do when you get one.
How can you tell if your tire is flat?
In the movies, you get explosive and spectacular blowouts. The car veers and swerves across the road out of control for about twenty minutes and then cartwheels into a fiery inferno. In the real world this tends not to happen.
Instead, you hear and feel a strong, rhythmic thumping or flapping sound, and the steering may start to feel vague and heavy. You need to pull over to the side of the road as soon as you can.
Don’t cut across lanes of fast-moving traffic or pull up on the apex of a blind bend, but don’t waste any time either. Even a flat tire will keep some structural integrity for a short time, so slow right down and use it to find somewhere safe to pull over.
It may not be this dramatic. Some tire deflations are slower, and you may not the get the thumping sound of a flat, but you might still notice the steering getting heavy and vague and the car not responding as it should.
The tire may be losing pressure slowly, but you still need to pull over and check it. If it’s still half-inflated you might have time to get to a local repair center, but do drive slowly and carefully and stop again in a while to see if it’s got worse.
Be aware that if you drive it until it’s completely flat, the tire will almost certainly be damaged beyond repair.
Can you fix a flat tire yourself?
It’s quite likely that you can’t, even if you’re a brawny bodybuilder who can lift the corner of your car with your bare hands and loosen wheelnuts with your teeth.
First, a lot of new cars don’t come with spares, even the spacesaver type. You might get a puncture repair kit, which might get you back on the road for just long enough (see below), but otherwise you need to call out your breakdown service.
Which is one of the many good reasons for subscribing to one, by the way.
Second, you might not have all the kit. If you bought a used car the chances are more than even that one or more of the bits you need is missing.
Spare wheel? Check. Wheelbrace? Check. Jack? Uh, yeah, about that… The other problem-in-waiting is the locking wheelnut widget for your alloy wheels.
These are great for stopping thieves from stealing your expensive alloys, but not so great if you can’t find them or you’ve left them in your garage.
Third, if you’re pulled over on the edge of a busy freeway, it’s actually quite dangerous to try to change a wheel.
Even if you have all the kit and you’ve done it before, you’re much better off calling the towtruck. If you haven’t changed a wheel before, if it’s dark, if you’re travelling alone, or you’re in an area where you don’t feel safe… call the breakdown service.
Run-flat tires and puncture repair kits
Some upmarket vehicles come with run-flat tires which could get you where you need to go – slowly. They use reinforced sidewalls or internal supporting rings which give the tire just enough structural strength to keep you going. They’re an expensive option and expensive to replace, but better than the alternative.
Some new cars are sold with puncture repair kits instead – you can also buy these in car supply stores and they’re not expensive. They work by injecting a sealant into the tire via the valve and then pumping it up with compressed air.
This can work fine for small puncture holes but it’s simply a get-you-home solution – the tire will still need a proper repair or replacement.
A puncture repair kit won’t be any good if your tire has been damaged by running completely flat, and this can easily happen in the time it takes to pull over somewhere safe. They’re worth having in the car, but they bring no guarantees.
How to stop a flat tire happening in the first place
Most punctures are caused by sharp objects penetrating the tire – typically a screw or a nail. Sometimes they can be caused by impact damage, though the kind of impact that can deflate a tire will almost certainly damage the wheel too, so a puncture is probably the least of your worries.
In any event, punctures are mostly random events you can’t predict or prevent.
But sometimes you might pick up a nail as you pull up, so whenever you head to your car to drive away, do a quick visual check to make sure all the tires are inflated.
You don’t have to turn into an auto technician with a tire gauge and a clipboard – you’ll see straight away if you have a flat.
And if you do, it’s going to be a lot simpler to get it fixed where you’re parked, and there’s a much better chance the tire can be saved because you haven’t driven on it.
This quick visual check can also show up a slow puncture, which will at the very least cause poor handling and tire wear and could also leave you stranded.
You’ll soon see if one tire looks flatter than the rest, and with luck you’ll have enough air in it to get it somewhere it can be re-inflated – and if it loses pressure again, you know you’ve got a slow puncture.
It could be a small nail or a screw which can be removed and the tyre repaired, or it could just be an old and perished tire slowly leaking of its own accord, in which case it needs replacing. Either way, it’s better to find out now rather than later.
Just remember, tires put up with a lot and don’t ask for much in return. Don’t neglect them.