Why taking care of your tires is key to car safety

If you haven't checked the health of your tires recently, you may be putting yourself – and others – at risk on the road.

When is the last time you checked your tire treads? Or had your tires rotated? If it's been more than a few months, you may be putting yourself and others at risk on the road.

The condition of your tires has a significant effect on overall vehicle safety that goes beyond the occasional flat. In fact, there are 11,000 tire-related crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Fortunately, you don't have to be a mechanic to stay on top of your tire maintenance. Use the following tips to keep your tires in top shape and prevent premature replacement and sometimes life-threatening accidents.

Maintain proper tire pressure

Tire pressure affects vehicle safety, tire durability and fuel consumption. By properly maintaining tire pressure, you can reduce your risk of an incident on the road and increase the life of your tires.

Check the pressure in each of your tires at least once a month when the tires are cold — before the car has been driven when the outside temperature is moderate. If you drive long distances regularly or live in a cold climate, you'll want to inspect your tires more often.

The proper inflation levels will vary between tires and vehicles. Use your vehicle's owner's manual or the information label on the inside of the driver's side door-jamb to find the recommended levels for your car.

Examine wear on the tread

The tread is one of the easiest ways to track wear and tear on your tires and identify problems with pressure levels or alignment. AAA Exchange notes several things to look out for during a visual tire inspection:

• Overinflation or underinflation

Too much or too little air pressure will create an uneven distribution of contact between the tire and the road. An overinflated tire will wear more heavily in the center of the tread.

In contrast, underinflation will cause the edges of the tire to wear down more quickly than the center. If you notice this kind of tread wear, adjust the tire pressure accordingly.

• Wear on one edge

If you notice tread wear on just one edge of a tire, this could indicate that the wheels are out of alignment. When wheels are not aligned properly, you can reduce the life of your tires and increase your risk of hydroplaning.

• Irregular tread wear

Also known as tire cupping or scalloping, an uneven tread wear pattern can indicate problems with inflation, vehicle alignment or even the suspension.

Inspect tread depth

Tread depth can be just as important to track as wear patterns. Tires depend on the tread to maintain good traction on the road and wick water in wet conditions. If you allow your tire tread to wear down too much, you will have less control on the road and are at greater risk for hydroplaning or reduced stopping power.

Consumer Reports warns that longer wet-weather stops due to worn tread can be more dangerous than hydroplaning. When comparing new tires to those with half their tread depth, the worn tires need 3 to 6 feet longer to stop on a wet track at 40 mph.

To prevent driving with dangerous tread wear, inspect each tire's tread depth monthly. Typical tread depth starts around 11/32 inch. While the minimum legal tread depth is usually 2/32 inch, you shouldn't let your tires wear below 4/32 inch to ensure proper handling in wet conditions.

To check tread depth you can use a tread-depth gauge or do the quarter test. If your tires have worn to 4/32 inch or less, it's time to replace them. For best results, Consumer Reports recommends replacing all four tires at once, even if one or two tires have some tread life left in them. Replacing all four tires will ensure even handling on the road and reduce the risk of fishtailing or hydroplaning.

Stay safe on the road this winter and year-round by regularly inspecting and maintaining your tires.