A tire blowout at high speed is one of the most dangerous automotive emergencies one can ever face. Michelin estimates that 535 fatalities and 2,300 collisions are caused by tire blowouts every year, in part because it turns out that the driver's usual instinctive response is exactly the wrong thing to do.
The first step to handling blowouts is to expand the odds against one ever happening to you. The single most common cause of tire blowouts is underinflation, which is why tire pressure monitors are now mandatory on all cars after 2007. If the low pressure symbol on your dashboard (shown above) lights up, it means one or more of your tires has lost 25% of its rated pressure. Pull over as soon as safely possible to avoid damaging or blowing out the tire.
If you don't have tire pressure monitors, (and really, even if you do) keep an eye on your tire pressures. This can be one of the hardest things for drivers to remember to do – I'm terrible at it - but it can be vital to do it at least once a month. Tires will lose some air over time anyway, and underinflated tires will not only be at higher risk for blowouts, but will have a seriously bad effect on gas mileage, not to mention cutting down on the useful life of the tires.
Let's say you're driving down the highway at 65, enjoying a nice day out, and suddenly one of your right-side tires blows out. It can be the front or rear, it doesn't really matter. The first thing that happens is that the car veers to the right. The instinctive response is to slam on the brakes and yank the wheel to the left. The instinctive response is wrong. Doing this will most likely cause the car to lose all grip and yaw back to the left, putting the car at a 90-degree angle to your direction of travel. At this point you are no longer a driver, you are a projectile wrapped in a ton and a half of metal. The next thing that will happen is that the tires will regain grip and proceed to flip the car over. Now you're rolling. Rolling is bad. I hope you were belted in...
So, the single most important thing to do when a tire blows out is to control the panic reaction. I know, easier said than done, right? Some driving schools try to teach this by using tires rigged with small explosive charges to simulate a blowout condition. Failing that kind of difficult and expensive training, the best approach is to take some time and effort to fix the proper response in your head, so if this does ever happen to you, you're not in the car thinking, “Now what was it that tire guy said not to do? Oh yeah... that.”
With this in mind, I offer a simple and hopefully effective phrase to fix in your memory:
- Keep your foot on the gas, steer in the direction of the skid and “drive through” the blowout. If necessary, give it even a bit more gas to overcome the initial drag that is pulling you to one side. You need the wheels to keep rolling to keep control of the car.
- Gently correct your steering to bring the car back into line. When you have the car under control, start easing your foot off the gas to slow down.
- Don't use more than minimal braking, and pull off the road when your speed has come down. If possible, pull off so that the blown tire is away from the road to make changing the tire safer and easier.
- Don't go for the hazard lights until the car has stopped. Unless you can hit that button without looking, it takes your eyes and concentration off the road. The cars behind you have seen you swerve and are busy getting the heck out of your vicinity. You want to stay predictable while they do that.
I sincerely hope you never have a use for this information. Frankly, with today's tires and TPMS monitoring systems, the odds are against it. But if just a couple of minutes of visualization and some thought about how to react in the unlikely event can help to save your life, that's a pretty decent risk-management equation. So is checking your tire pressures and making sure you buckle up.
Ok. Lecture over.