Don’t Just Check the Air . . .

  • July 9, 2024

For decades, people have been advised to regularly check/make sure their vehicle’s tires haven’t lost air – especially after the mid-1990s-era Firestone tire/Ford Explorer rollover fiasco.

The Explorer of that era wasn’t dangerous, per se.

If it was not driven fast on under-inflated (and not especially well-made) Firestone tires. If it was, what could and sometimes did happen was that a tire would fail on account of the heat built up by driving the Ford fast on an under-inflated, not-very-well-made tire. Compounding the problem was that the Explorer of that era was based closely on the Ranger pick-up of the same era and had a not-very-sophisticated suspension system and a high center of gravity that many people who didn’t drive trucks weren’t used to. The result off all these factors added up was a suddenly uncontrollable Explorer that had a tendency to barrel-roll itself (and those inside) to death.

From this fiasco came the tire pressure monitoring systems all new vehicles have had since then, by federal mandate. Including cars that didn’t have a higher tendency to become uncontrollable if a tire suddenly failed due to being under-inflated.

That these tire pressure monitors are often not reliable – the indicated pressure is often not the actual pressure – and for that reason many people just ignore the warning light when it comes on (and drive around on under-inflated tires) doesn’t seem to matter much to the mandators. Nor that the monitors encourage people to not check their tire pressure themselves  – as in manually, using a physical gauge – and thus encourage people to drive around on under-inflated tires they assume are ok because the “check tires” light isn’t on.

Or which they ignore when it’s on because they assume it’s not reliable.

Anyhow, it’s not just the air pressure that’s a good idea to check – yourself – every couple of weeks, at least.

It’s also a good idea to make sure the wheels are tight. More finely, that the lug nuts haven’t worked themselves loose. Or maybe you had a Biden Moment and forgot to torque them down.

It can happen – and when it does, what happens next is worse than just a flat tire. I know – because it happened to me about a week ago. And it could have been a lot worse than it was.

Backstory: I bought a set of tires for my ’02 Nissan Frontier; I dropped these off – along with my truck’s wheels – at my buddy the mechanic’s shop to mount and balance when he had the time. He called me when they were ready and I stopped by to pick them up and took them home – where I installed them on m my truck (which I had up on my lift in the meanwhile).

I thought I torqued the lug nuts down. I am usually very OCD about such things. But – unless someone was trying to get me – it turns out I didn’t.

But I didn’t realize it, at first.

I decided to drive the truck into town – because I needed to get some drainage rocks and putting a load into the Cadillac CT4 I was test driving (reviewed here) at the time didn’t seem like the right (or nice) thing to do. Especially now that I am getting GM cars to test drive again (waiting on Mercedes to come back around).

Almost as soon as I got onto the main road, I began to hear a strange noise. It sounded like a stick (a big stick) or something like that was stuck underneath and maybe hitting the spinning driveshaft.

Stupidly – being in a hurry – I ignored it until it got louder. Until I began to feel something weird, too. I decided to pull over into a church parking lot to have a look. I crawled underneath and didn’t see anything. I did a close walk-around – and didn’t notice anything. Popped the hood, looked under there. Having found nothing, I decided – stupidly – to get back in and keep on going.

I got about 200 yards down the road – at which point the left front wheel dropped off – and bounced off down the road. The truck came to a spark-showering halt, just off the road.

You can guess what had happened.

Whether as a result of sabotage – maybe someone doesn’t like your libertarian car guy! – or (more likely) my own Biden Moment – the lugs nuts holding that wheel to the hub worked loose and then off.

Then the wheel came off.

Thank the Motor Gods, no one was coming in the opposite lane when my wheel left my truck and bounced a few times down the opposite lane before bouncing off into the woods. I was able to find it and – after I got my buddy to come and pick me up and drive me back to the house for some tools (and a jack) I was able to put the wheel (and tire) back on. Miraculously, none of the wheel studs had sheared off. I pirated four lugs nuts (one each) from the truck’s other three wheels, enough to limp home at 20 MPH on a side road and put the truck back on my lift.

I went to town in the CT4 and got six new lug nuts and that was all it costs me – plus the time and embarrassment.

It might have cost me more, had the wheel come off when I was going faster – or going into a curve. Or if someone else had been coming the other way at just the wrong time. Thankfully, none of that happened. But the take-home point is it could have.

And the lesson to relearn is: Make sure the lugs are tight when you re-install wheels (or have them re-installed by a tire shop, etc.). Because knowing is smarter than assuming.

And less costly than forgetting.

. . .

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