Saturday, October 08, 2016

Flat on the Bottom

We were coming up the back way heading home when we both heard the crack. It was more than the usual rock-shooting-out sound we were used to hearing when driving that stretch of dirt road. Almost immediately a little yellow icon flashed on the dash with an exclamation point inside of it. It was kind of a "U" but with a flattened and spread out bottom. While not as universal as that circle with a red line through it, there was no doubt what it was signaling: I had a flat tire.

However, with my car being a fairly recent model, I also had what they refer to as "run-flats." Likely developed by NASA while they were working on TANG, these marvels of engineering are able to, well, run while they are flat. Either by beefing up the sidewalls or including a hard rubber donut inside, they enable you to keep driving for a limited time until you can get said flat fixed. Note I said "fixed" and not "changed." That's because, more and more, there's nothing to change to. The Automobile Association of America, or AAA, reports that nearly 40% of cars sold today come without a spare tire, mine included.

You might think cost is the main driver. After all, leave it out and the overall price of the car drops a bit. And with tire technology and durability improving, the odds of having a problem are decreasing. Tire manufacturer Michelin estimates that drivers average 70,000 miles between flats. So why include something most will never use? Anyways, given a choice, most drivers would likely punt on the spare in favor of essentials like additional cup holders, built in phone chargers and Bluetooth connectivity.

But it's not the money, it's the mileage. With government fleet standards steadily on the rise, you have to find ways to stretch a tank of gas. You can either defeat the emission system (Volkswagen we're looking at you), or shave off some bloat. So losing a 50-pound dead weight allows you to add flat screens and subwoofers with more than just a few ounces left over.

Still, manufacturers don't want to appear completely oblivious to the possibility of picking up a nail, so they take two approaches. One is to include an "inflator kit," which consists of a sealant and pump. You attach the hose, and goop and air flow into the tire, plugging any leak and allowing you to continue. But tests by AAA show that A) Tire inflator kits can only be used when a puncture occurs on the very center of the tread; AA) The nail or screw has to still be in the tire, plugging the hole; and AAA) That goop means that the cost to actually repair the tire for real after using it is as much as 10 times more than fixing a flat that hasn't been sealed. So other than getting you out of a very particular jam, it's almost more trouble than it's worth.

The other alternative was my situation. Run-flats keep you going hopefully at least as long as it takes to get to a repair shop, where the problem can be addressed the right way. Assuming the mechanic is not off that day, and it's during business hours, you can usually be on your way within an hour for under $30.

Only one problem: I had blown out the side of the tire, not the tread. So while it was flat on the bottom, the hole was further up, and no patch would do the job. The only fix was a new tire, which would take a day or two to get from the shop's suppler. Luckily this all happened close to home and I was in town for the week. So the only casualty was my wife's schedule, as she had to juggle her appointments to be able to drop me off and pick me up at the train.

I guess when I think about it, this all parallels other parts of my life where I have no spare or backup. I walk around with credit cards and no cash. I have my phone but no pen and paper. Then again, I've been walking around for years with a belt and no suspenders, and my pants have yet to fall down. Let's hope there's no reason to doubt that decision.


Marc Wollin of Bedford taught his kids how to change a flat. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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