Tires don’t go flat as much as they used to in the days before steel-belted radials became standard equipment on new cars. But flats and blowouts still occur, and they pose their own special kinds of hazards when they happen on the open road. Knowing how to respond to them safely can make all the difference between an event that is merely a nuisance and a tragedy.
Statistics on flat tires and blowouts are hard to come by, but back in 2003 the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they were responsible for about 78,000 crashes a year, 10,300 non-fatal injuries and 414 fatalities. The risk comes in two ways: reducing your control over your vehicle, and exposing you to the risk of being hit by a passing vehicle while trying to replace the tire.
Handling your vehicle
Once your realize your tire has lost most or all of its air pressure, it’s important to 1) take your foot off the gas pedal and brake lightly to slow down, 2) grab the steering wheel with a firm grip and 3) steer toward the side of the road. Remember not to panic, because it could cause you to overreact and lose control of the vehicle completely.
Your primary goal should be to drive completely out of the traffic lanes, either onto an exit lane if you’re driving on a freeway or onto the shoulder of the road and come to a stop. It’s even better if you can make it into a parking area, but only if you can safely drive slowly. Remember that the farther you drive the greater the damage to the tire and rim, but that it’s it better to ruin them than to be hit by another car
Before you stop, but after you’re sure your vehicle is under control, turn on your four-way emergency flashers to be sure other drivers see you.
Once you’ve stopped
After you’ve come to stop, determine if it’s safe to exit the vehicle. If not, remain inside with your seat belt buckled and, if you have a cell phone, call 911 for assistance. If you can safely leave the vehicle, put out reflective triangles or traffic cones behind your car, if you have them. If you don’t, open your trunk and hood and tie a rag to your antenna, or hang it outside a closed window.
You should try to replace the damaged tire with your spare ONLY if 1) you are far from whizzing traffic (the road shoulder is too close for comfort), and 2) you’re stopped on a paved and level surface, to prevent your car from falling off the jack. Otherwise, call for roadside assistance or wait for a police car to call for a tow truck, preferably far away from traffic, outside your vehicle if that’s what it takes. The bottom line: your health and safety are many times more important than resuming your journey as soon as possible.