No one gets up in the morning thinking, "Maybe today will be the day I get a flat tire," but unfortunately for some, this unexpected nuisance can bring their commute to a sudden halt. One survey found 81% of drivers had experienced a flat tire, so all drivers should be prepared for this common and potentially dangerous scenario.
Whether you're worried about the health of one or more of your tires, you've just experienced a flat or you're wondering how long you can leave a spare on before you get a new tire put on, this guide will help answer your questions regarding flat tires and their replacements. No one wants to get a flat, but when you have AAA ready to offer you roadside assistance, you can enjoy more peace of mind on the road.
How to Tell If You Have a Flat Tire
The earlier you spot a flat tire, the better, so you can quickly replace it with your spare. Driving on a flat tire is dangerous since it could lead to an accident. Even if you can avoid that worst-case scenario, driving on a flat tire for too long can damage your wheel, your vehicle and the internal structure of the tire.
When you have a flat tire, it's usually unmistakable. You can either see that the tire has gone flat, or if it happens while you're driving, you may hear and feel a sudden thump and an ongoing vibration and flapping sound. You may also struggle to steer straight. If you experience these or any other signs of a problem while driving, pull over to the nearest safe place.
Some flat tires occur suddenly to otherwise healthy tires because of a sharp object on the road. However, in many cases, you can spot signs that a tire is at risk of going flat. Watch for these warning signs, and if you experience them, take your vehicle into a mechanic shop to be diagnosed or replace the worn tires.
- Vibration while driving: If your tires are vibrating, which you'll feel inside the car as you grip the steering wheel, this may mean your tires are out of alignment or somehow unbalanced.
- Weak spots: If a tire has weak spots, it will be more vulnerable to going flat. Look for bulging areas or bubbles in the tire's surface. You should also look for cracks or cuts, which may be leaking air.
- Low tire pressure: If the pressure reading is too low on one or more of your tires, you should inflate them to their recommended pressure levels. If they lose pressure again too quickly, then you likely have a leak on your hands.
- Worn tread: You should check your tires periodically to ensure they still have enough tread. A simple way to check is to insert a quarter into one of the grooves and see whether the tread reaches George Washington's head. If there's space above his head, then it's time to replace your tires, or you'll risk a blowout on the road.
How Do You Put a Spare Tire On?
If you're a AAA member, then you have the advantage of roadside assistance for emergencies like a flat tire. Since your membership travels with you rather than with your car, no matter what vehicle you find yourself in, if a tire goes flat, all you need to do is find a safe, level place to pull over and call AAA. Put your hazard lights on for safety and wait in the vehicle until help arrives. If you can't get off the roadway, place warning triangles or flares out to help other drivers avoid your vehicle.
If you don't have AAA and have to put on a spare tire to get where you're going or get to the auto shop, you can do so using the tools your vehicle should have come with: your owner's manual, spare tire, lug wrench and jack. It's also smart to keep some other items in your car to help with a tire change, such as wheel wedges to keep the car from rolling, a flashlight in case it's dark, a rain poncho in case of bad weather and work gloves to protect your hands.
To put on your spare, you first need to park in a safe place, turn off the vehicle and engage the parking brake. If you have wheel wedges, use these to secure the vehicle even more. Then, you're ready to follow these steps:
- Loosen the lug nuts: First, you need to loosen the lug nuts on the flat tire. If there is a hubcap in the way, remove it first according to your owner's manual directions. Use the lug wrench to turn the lug nuts to the left until you feel them loosen. If they feel stuck, you may have to push your weight against the lug nuts' resistance to get them to budge. You only need to turn the lug nuts a bit at this stage.
- Lift the vehicle: With the lug nuts loosened, position the jack alongside the flat tire under the vehicle frame. Your owner's manual should include the ideal jack placement for your vehicle. Raise the vehicle until the tire is lifted fully off the ground with some space underneath. Even if the car feels secure, do not put any part of your body under the raised vehicle.
- Remove the flat tire: Now you can remove the flat tire by loosening the lug nuts the rest of the way, removing them and pulling the tire straight forward. Place the tire on its side next to the jack.
- Place the spare tire: Line up your spare tire's rim with the lug bolts and push it into place. Once the spare tire is on, put the lug nuts back on and tighten them as much as you can by hand. Some spare tires may come with their own specialized nuts or bolts. If so, use these instead of the standard ones to mount your spare tire.
- Lower the vehicle and tighten: Move the flat tire out of the way, then lower the vehicle using the jack until it's touching the ground but is still being lifted a bit by the jack. At this point, you should turn the lug nuts clockwise with your wrench. Put your body weight into it to tighten the lug nuts as much as possible. Now finish lowering the vehicle completely and remove the jack. Ensure the lug nuts are tightened all the way.
Clean up: If you can replace your hubcap, you can do that at this point. If the hubcap doesn't fit your spare, simply leave it stowed away in your vehicle. You can now put away your tools and place your flat tire in the trunk of the vehicle. Once everything is put away, you can drive to your destination or to a tire or autobody shop.
How Long Should You Drive on a Spare Tire?
How long you can drive on a spare depends on the type of tire. In general, though, spare tires are meant to replace a flat temporarily — they're not intended for long-term use.
This is especially true in the case of compact spare tires, sometimes called donuts. These tires are smaller so they take up less room in your trunk and don't put too much strain on your fuel economy. However, because they're smaller and have less tread, they are not good replacements for standard tires. They're simply there to help you get to a nearby destination safely. Ideally, you should drive straight to a repair shop where you can have a new tire or set of tires put on.
You should only drive on a compact spare tire for up to 50 miles at the most. This means that if you're on a long road trip, you'll need to get a new tire put on before finishing your drive. It also means you shouldn't put on your spare tire and then continue commuting for days on end before replacing it. Driving on a spare for long distances can ultimately damage other parts of your vehicle, including the transmission.
What if you have a full-size spare tire? These spares look identical to the tires you normally have on your vehicle. Some vehicles come equipped with full-size spare tires, but this has become increasingly less common over time. If you carry a full-size spare, then you're probably wondering how long full-size spare tires last. After all, these are regular tires, not temporary, compact ones.
For full-size spare tires, pay attention to how many miles you've driven on them. A typical set of all-season tires will usually last between 50,000 and 70,000 miles. Replace your full-size spare as soon as it shows signs of age or weakness. Only drive on a spare tire that has adequate tread and doesn't show signs of damage.
Regardless of which type of spare you have on hand, if the spare doesn't look fit for the road, you're better off calling for help to get your car to a repair shop rather than driving on a damaged or deflated spare, even for a short distance.
How Fast Can You Drive on a Spare Tire?
You can drive at the same speed as you normally would if you're driving on a healthy, full-size spare since these tires are just like your other tires. However, if you're driving on a donut-style spare, then you should keep your speed down.
Don't drive faster than 50 mph on a temporary spare tire. If you have to drive on the highway, stay in the far right lane. If you're driving much slower than other vehicles around you, you may want to turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers of your presence. If you know an alternative route to your destination that is off the highway, you may prefer to take this route so you can drive more slowly and carefully on your spare without disrupting the flow of traffic.
How Often Should You Replace Your Spare Tire?
For many people, a spare tire is out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. It's important, though, to consider how long a spare tire can last and replace it when the time comes. A spare tire's lifespan depends on various factors, but it's typically best to replace a spare after seven to 10 years. Of course, if you use your spare and it experiences a lot of wear, then you may need to replace it sooner.
You should also inspect your spare tire regularly to ensure it's in good shape and is well inflated. That way, it will be ready for action when you need it. This is true whether you have a compact or a full-size spare. You should find information on the amount of pressure your spare needs in your owner's manual or on a placard in the driver’s side door jamb of the vehicle.
Keep in mind that donut-style spares require more air pressure than your regular tires. You may find the required pressure for your compact spare in the previously mentioned places or on the sidewall of the spare tire itself.
What If You Don't Have a Spare Tire?
An increasing number of drivers today will find that their vehicles don't come with spare tires of any kind. In fact, about a third of new cars today don't include a spare tire. That's because manufacturers are looking for ways to optimize fuel economy. Instead, these vehicles may come with a tire-inflator and sealant kit to help a driver fix a flat temporarily. Or these cars may be equipped with run-flat tires — tires that can still remain functional for a short distance after losing air.
These solutions can work if your tire suffers a small puncture or has a slow leak. Unfortuantely, they're not very helpful solutions if your tire gets slashed or blows out on the road. In these situations, having roadside assistance is an invaluable asset that can save you from being stranded with no spare to get you home or to the repair shop. With AAA, spare tires don't have to be your saving grace when you get a flat.
Enjoy a Helping Hand When You Need It With AAA Emergency Roadside Assistance
To be ready for any travel emergency, including a flat tire, become a AAA member. AAA offers many perks to our members, but our 24/7 emergency roadside assistance is a service that our members especially value.
If you have AAA, when you get a flat tire, all you need to do is request help over the phone, online or through the AAA app, and a skilled technician will come to your location. They can put on your spare tire if you have one in the vehicle, or they can tow your vehicle to your preferred location. Even if you're riding in a friend's vehicle, you can use your AAA membership to get fast and professional help on the road.
Learn more about emergency roadside assistance from AAA and start driving with more peace of mind, knowing you'll have a helping hand when you need it.