Here’s a sobering thought. Summer or winter, rain or shine, all that lies between you and a short, damaging trip into the scenery is the equivalent of the area of four shoe soles. Yes, every car tyre has a ‘contact patch’ the amount of its treaded area that touches the road. This area is only the size of an adult’s footprint.
Let’s say your car weighs one tonne. Nobody weighs half a tonne and the soles of his or her shoes do a pretty good job, expect perhaps on ice or snow. Translated into car tyre terms, the four-sole area has to do much, much more. It’s unlikely, for example, that a road car could generate a cornering force of 1g. Under heavy braking, it’s quite possible for such a force to be generated. Moreover, the forces generated during acceleration and cornering can be very high. Your car tyres and their contact patches do more than a ‘pretty good job’. You don’t usually expect your shoes to keep you from slipping in adverse conditions, such as on gritty or diesel-soaked tarmac in extremes of temperature. Your car tyres do this on a regular basis.
Legally, each of your car tyres must have a minimum of 1.6 millimetres of tread across ¾ of the width of the tyre’s running surface. Not meeting this requirement can get you three penalty points on your licence, as well as a £2,500 fine…per tyre. So, four balding car tyres equals a lost licence and fines of up to £10,000.
In this context, the law could be called an ass. Why? Because just 1.6 millimetres of tread on a car tyre is cutting things fine when it comes to grip. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSpa) put this to the test. They tried some emergency stops in a typical car on some typical surfaces. On smooth concrete, as some motorway stretches have, the car’s barely legal tyres took a distance of 46.6 percent more to stop than an equivalent car with good tyres. Similarly, on hot rolled asphalt, the worn tyres needed 36.8 percent more distance to bring the car to a halt. There’s no need to ask why RoSpa recommends a minimum tread depth of 3 millimetres.
This isn’t the only scenario where worn car tyres will struggle. Tyres are designed to act like water pumps in wet conditions, they can clear surface water from their contact patches. When this fails to happen properly, the tyre will ride on a thin film of water. If this happens, you’d feel the steering lighten, which is an indicator of what’s actually going on. When a car tyre is unable to cut through road water fast enough, it will aquaplane. Aquaplaning equals significantly reduced grip, as you might find out when you attempt to steer or brake.
Whilst it may seem to make sense to get the very most out of the treads on your car tyres, there is such a thing as false economy. Your car tyres have wear indicators, moulded into the treads. Take a look at them and, if the treads no longer stand proud of the tread wear indicators, it’s new tyre time. Running your tyres down to the legal minimum could cost you far more than you think.