Johannesburg - It’s a scary thought: The only things keeping your car on the road and under control are four patches of rubber no bigger than the palm of your hand.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that tyres are crucial to driving performance, road handling and safety - and that looking after them will not only extend their lives - it could also save yours.

Here are eight tips from Tiger Wheel and Tyre’s Joe du Plooy on tyre maintenance:

1 Fit the right tyres: Tyre safety begins with having the the right size of tyres for your car, and the right type of tyre for the driving you do. There’s an extra kink in this cable, though: If you fit wider than standard rims on your car, remember to increase the tyre size as well, while using a slightly lower profile so the rolling diameter of the wheel remains the same, and your car’s speedometer retains its accuracy. Fitting standard-size tyres on wider rims stresses their sidewalls in ways they’re not built to deal with and can cause problems.

2 Check your tyres every month: Walk round your car at least once a month and check for visible damage - cracks, cuts, lumps (especially in the sidewalls) and nails in the tread. The easiest way to remember this check, says Du Plooy, is to do it at the same time every month - such as the weekend after payday. That way, if you do find something wrong, you can still afford to fix it!

This bulge on the sidewall of the tyre was caused by hitting a pothole.

3 Check tread depth: The legal minimum is 1mm - all the way across the tyre! - but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a change in road-holding before the tyres reach this limit. An easy check is the notorious matchstick test: If the tread on the tyre isn’t deep enough to take a matchstick, it’s not deep enough to channel away the water on the road during a proper Highveld thunderstorm. Enough said.

The legal minimum is 1mm - all the way across the tyre!

4 Maintain the spare: If your car has a spare wheel (not all current models do) make sure that it has sufficient tread depth, no cracks, it’s properly inflated, and you have the tools available to fit it, if you need it. If your car has a space-saver spare, check the yellow sticker on the rim for the correct tyre pressure - it will be different from the tyres on your full-size wheels - and bear in mind that space saver spares are safety-rated only to 80km/h.

5 Maintain correct tyre pressures: Regardless of what your friends and the tyre salesman say, there is no such thing as a tyre that doesn’t leak - but the flipside of that is that keeping your tyres correctly inflated will make them last longer, ensure optimum road-holding and reduce fuel-consumption.

Don’t know the right pressures? They’re in the owner’s manual or, failing that, on a sticker in the frame of the driver’s door.

Check tyre pressures at least once a month - there is no such thing as a bike tyre that doesn't leak.

6 Inflate your tyres with nitrogen gas instead of air: This is a racing trick that works just as well for the road. Nitrogen is an inert gas that expands very little as it gets hot, so your tyre pressures stay constant, hot or cold, they leak less, run cooler and last as much as 20 percent longer. Some tyre fitment centres and garages advertise free nitrogen inflation; keep your eyes peeled for promotional signage.

7 Balance and align wheels regularly: Have the wheels of your car balanced and rotated, at least every 10 000km - more often  if you notice signs of vibration, steering pulling to one side or uneven tyre wear.

Have your wheels balanced and rotated at least every 10 000km.

8 Check your tyres' age: This may sound silly, but the rubber used for making tyres gets harder and more brittle with age, which is why every tyre has a DOT-code on its sidewall. Three digits identify a tyre made before 2000 (which you shouldn't be using anyway); tyres made made since 2000 have a four-digit code; the first two digits indicate the production week and the second two the year. If your tyres are more than five years old, check them regularly - and be ruthless about replacing them at the first sign of cracked sidewalls.

IOL Motoring
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