Having properly inflated tires is crucial for safe driving.
But what happens when one of your tires starts to lose air?
Is it still ok to drive with low tire pressure?
Why You Should Avoid Driving With Low Tire Pressure
Before explaining the dangers, it helps to understand why low tire pressure is problematic in the first place.
Tires are designed to handle a certain pressure range. The recommended PSI (pounds per square inch) level keeps the tire structurally sound. It allows the tire tread to grip the road properly and maintain control.
When a tire has inadequate pressure, its shape and tread contact are compromised. The tire also runs hotter from having to work harder to roll.
This combination of poor handling, traction loss, and excess heat is what makes low tire pressure so hazardous. It impacts every aspect of your vehicle’s performance.
Now let’s look at some specific risks of driving with under-inflated tires:
1. Blowouts Become More Likely
Excessive heat can cause the tire to come apart catastrophically. This is known as a blowout, and it often happens without warning.
Imagine cruising down the highway when your tire suddenly ruptures, veering you into oncoming traffic. Blowouts account for over 200 fatal accidents per year.
2. Braking Distance Increases
Low tire pressure reduces traction between your tires and the road. This means it takes longer to slow down and stop your vehicle.
Increased braking distance could mean the difference between avoiding an accident or colliding at high speed. Just a few PSI drop can add several feet to your stopping distance.
3. Difficulty Controlling the Vehicle
Under-inflated tires don’t grip as well laterally either. This makes it harder to steer precisely around curves and obstacles.
Your vehicle may feel loose or disconnected from the road. Quick maneuvers become risky as you lose traction and control.
4. Uneven Tire Wear
The abnormal flexing from low pressure causes uneven tread wear. Certain areas of the tire contact the road more than others.
This irregular wear shortens the tire’s lifespan. Once the tread depth becomes too thin, hydroplaning on wet roads also becomes an issue.
5. Reduced Fuel Economy
Under-inflated tires create more rolling resistance. Your engine has to work harder to maintain speed, burning extra fuel.
The effect becomes more pronounced at highway speeds. Even slightly low pressure can sap your gas mileage over time.
6. Vehicle Strain and Damage
Besides tire damage, low pressure stresses the entire suspension. Components like shocks and wheel bearings wear out faster.
If you hit potholes frequently with insufficient pressure, it can bend wheels or damage vehicles in other ways. This leads to expensive repairs.
As you can see, driving with low tire pressure jeopardizes safety and puts your vehicle at risk. That’s why it’s so important to maintain proper inflation.
Warning Signs Your Tire Pressure is Low
How can you tell if your tires are under-inflated before it becomes an emergency? Watch for these common symptoms:
- Vehicle pulling to one side
- Uneven or rapid tread wear
- Excessive vibration or bouncing
- Reduced gas mileage
- Tires looking under-inflated visually
You may also hear a flapping or thumping noise from the tire at certain speeds. This indicates a bulge from low pressure.
Anytime something seems off with your vehicle’s handling, tires should be the first thing to check. Don’t ignore the signs.
When to Check Tire Pressure
You don’t have to check tire pressure daily, but you should make it part of your routine maintenance. Here are some good times to check:
- Before long road trips
- After hitting potholes or debris
- With seasonal temperature changes
- Once a month in general
Keep a tire gauge in your vehicle so you can check pressure anytime. Most gas stations also have an air pump available.
Ideally, you want to check tires when they’re cool before driving for the day. Inflation levels may appear higher after driving from the tires warming up.
Now let’s go over proper tire pressure basics, along with ways to prevent low pressure situations.
Maintaining Proper Tire Pressure
The correct PSI levels for your vehicle are found on a sticker inside the driver’s side door jamb. You can also check your owner’s manual.
- Pressures are given in PSI (pounds per square inch)
- Front and rear pressures may differ
- Spare tire pressure is listed separately
Always inflate your tires based on the vehicle manufacturer’s specifications. Even if the tires themselves have a higher pressure molded into the sidewall, don’t exceed the recommended PSI.
Driving with over-inflated tires has its own safety concerns, including reduced traction and accelerated center tread wear.
Once you know the correct pressure, use a tire gauge to check each tire. Add or remove air as needed until reaching the target inflation.
Be sure to check the spare tire as well. Nothing is worse than getting a flat, only to find your spare is under-inflated too.
Tire Pressure Monitoring System
Many modern vehicles come equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). This alerts the driver when pressure drops in one or more tires.
The TPMS light on your dashboard serves as an early warning to check inflation. This system doesn’t replace manual pressure checks, but it provides added peace of mind between occasions when you check pressures yourself.
Tire Pressure Tips
Here are some other tire pressure tips to help avoid low pressure situations:
- Invest in a quality digital tire gauge for accuracy
- Evaluate tire condition regularly to look for punctures
- If a tire needs frequent refilling, have it inspected for leaks
- Rotate tires every 5,000-8,000 miles to minimize uneven wear
- Alignments help tires roll straight to distribute wear evenly
- Balance and alignment can also reveal mechanical issues causing rapid pressure loss
Catching and addressing tire pressure drops early goes a long way. Don’t wait until you have a visibly low tire to take action.
What to Do If You Have Low Tire Pressure
Let’s say you notice your tire looks low or the TPMS light indicates under-inflation. What should you do?
Stop Driving Immediately
The first step is to pull over and stop driving ASAP. Even a few miles on an under-inflated tire can be dangerous. Find a safe location to park and turn on your hazard lights.
Check All Tires
Determine how much air pressure has been lost and in which tire(s). Check all four tires, even if one looks especially low. Multiple tires may be affected.
Fill Tires If Possible
If you have a pump and gauge handy and can reach a gas station, fill the low tires to the recommended PSI. Temporary mobile compressors can help in a pinch.
Call for Help If Unsafe
If the tire is ruptured or you can’t safely reach a place to inflate it, call for roadside assistance. Don’t attempt to drive on a dangerously under-inflated or blown-out tire. Arrange for a tow if needed.
Replace Spare If Used
If you have to use your spare, get the original tire repaired or replaced as soon as possible. Driving on a compact spare for an extended time is risky.
With the right preparation and diligence, you can avoid the hazards of low tire pressure. Check inflation often and address any decreases immediately before hitting the road.
FAQ About Driving With Low Tire Pressure
Let’s wrap up with some commonly asked questions about low tire pressure:
Is it safe to drive with a tire light on?
No, the tire pressure monitoring system light indicates one or more under-inflated tires. You should not drive until checking inflation levels manually with a gauge.
How far can you drive if a tire is low?
It’s not recommended to drive more than a few miles on a significantly under-inflated tire. The less distance driven, the better.
What PSI is too low to drive?
Tires should not be driven on if they are under-inflated by more than 50% of the recommended pressure. No tire should be below 20 PSI when driving.
Can I drive with a flat tire?
Absolutely not. A fully flat tire is extremely dangerous and can cause a catastrophic blowout. Never attempt to drive on a completely flat tire.
How do I tell if a tire is low vs. flat?
A tire that’s low will be visibly under-inflated but driveable for a short distance. A flat tire will be completely deflated and unable to roll at all.
What if I have no spare tire?
Call for roadside assistance if you have a flat tire and no spare. Temporary spares and mobile tire pumps can be life-savers too.
The Bottom Line
Regular tire pressure checks are essential for safety. Driving on under-inflated tires can lead to blowouts, reduced control, and accidents.
If your tires are low, address the problem immediately rather than risk driving in a dangerous condition. With the right vigilance and preventative care, you can avoid the hazards of insufficient tire pressure.
Stay safe out there on the roads, and keep your tires inflated to the proper PSI. Your life and vehicle depend on it.