Having a flat is one of the most inconvenient things that could happen while you are driving. Unlike mechanical issues, there are usually no telltale signs that you will get a flat. A tire failure is not just a minor hiccup in your journey, but it can bring your entire day's schedule to a grinding halt. The thought of a tire change, quick fix, or even calling a tow truck may make you wish you could just keep going. But can you?
Some drivers would overlook the fact that they have a flat tire and will continue driving. It sure seems possible, right? I mean, your car will continue to roll down the road. Sure, you will hear the flat tire being chewed by the road, and your vehicle will be jumping around, but at least it will be moving, right?
This, of course, begs the question – how far can you drive on a flat tire? It's something that many people asked me through the years, wondering whether flirting with a flat is really that dangerous or that the answer might somehow defy the laws of physics.
Well, to answer all those questions, I'll teach you everything there is to know about flat tires and give you the answer as to whether you can really drive on a flat.
So, buckle up because we'll be going down a long and winding road!
- Understanding Flat Tires
- Risks of Driving on a Flat Tire
- How Far Can You Really Drive on a Flat Tire?
- Emergency Solutions for a Flat Tire
- Professional Assistance for Flat Tires
Understanding Flat Tires
Most drivers know what a flat tire is. Still, let's have a closer look at what happens inside the tire so that you can better understand the issue.
1. What Constitutes a Flat Tire?
A flat tire, also known among drivers as a deflated or punctured tire, happens when the tire has a significant loss of air pressure. As a result, the casing of the tire won't be capable of supporting the vehicle's weight, and the part that touches the ground will look flat rather than round.
The decrease in pressure can be gradual, due to a small puncture or leak, or sudden, caused by a large tear or blowout. Either way, flat tires not only make it difficult to drive but can also pose safety risks if not addressed promptly. Not to mention, the tire's constituting parts can be damaged since they would be most of the load will fall on them.
2. Common Causes of Flat Tires
The most common cause of flat tires is punctures. Although modern tires have belts and plies that provide some puncture resistance, sharp objects like nails, screws, or glass shards can still puncture the tire's tread. This usually happens if you drive near construction sites or uncleaned roads.
Still, pressure loss can be caused by other factors as well. For instance, wear and tear over time can introduce cracks on the surface of the tire, but also bulges and tread separation. This can also lead to flats, especially if the tires are not regularly rotated or properly inflated.
In some cases, damage to the wheel's rim can break the seal of the tire, which could result in pressure loss. Damaged valve stems also happen frequently and can also cause pressure loss.
Furthermore, severe impacts, like hitting a deep pothole or a substantial curb, can also damage the tire and cause pressure loss. In these cases, the pressure loss usually is quick and caused by a blowout, which is much more dangerous than a gradual pressure loss.
Finally, tires also lose pressure over time, though in a minuscule amount. In other words, you should leave your car stationary for more than a year before there is a significant pressure loss.
Risks of Driving on a Flat Tire
Driving on a flat tire is associated with many risks, both safety, and durability related. Here is what happens when you drive on a flat:
1. Damage to the Tire
Driving on a flat tire can irreparably damage the components of the tire. This happens because the tire has to carry the whole weight of the car and will be subjected to all forces from driving (acceleration, braking, cornering) without the help of pressurized air.
As a result, damage to the internal parts, like the belts, plies, and sidewall, is imminent. And since all these parts make the tire structurally sound, any damage to them could cause disintegration and a possible blowout when inflated again.
Furthermore, the friction generated between the deflated tire and the road surface can wear away the tire's rubber, leading to tears or rips that can't be patched or repaired. The high heat generated from the friction can also cause the rubber compound to age sooner and further damage the internal parts.
Finally, the rim itself will put a lot of pressure on certain parts of the tire, which only accelerates the tearing and disintegration.
2. Damage to the Wheel Rim
Your car's wheels aren't designed to carry the whole vehicle's weight while also touching the ground and need the tire as a cushion.
However, without any air inside, the tire loses its cushioning properties, leaving the rim of the wheel (the outer part) to carry the vehicle's weight. As a result, the wheel could crack or bend. Not to mention, the rim will also be subjected to frequent bumps on the road, which will only accelerate the damage.
It's important to note that rim damage can be expensive to repair and, in severe cases, may require a complete wheel replacement.
3. Impact on Vehicle Handling and Safety
A flat tire severely affects your vehicle's handling and performance. It can lead to difficulty steering, reduced braking effectiveness, and increased stopping distances. Moreover, it will make the handling more nervous and less stable, even at very low speeds. The instability caused by a flat tire also raises the risk of losing control of your car, especially at higher speeds.
4. Potential for Further Vehicle Damage
The pressurized air inside the tire gives it dampening properties, i.e., limits the vibrations, impacts, and general harshness that are transmitted onto the car. Thus, when a tire goes flat, it creates all sorts of vibrations and impacts that affect other parts of the vehicle.
Notably, the increased vibration can impact the wheel alignment and damage the suspension components. In severe cases, parts of a disintegrating tire can damage the vehicle's body or undercarriage.
5. Safety of Other Traffic Participants
Those same rubber parts that can damage your car's body or undercarriage can also shoot outward and possibly hurt pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. This is particularly true for commercial trucks with very large tires, where driving on a flat could produce large pieces of rubber flying as a projectile in the surrounding area, especially at higher speeds.
How Far Can You Really Drive on a Flat Tire?
So, with all that you learned until now, what's your guess? Let's discuss this in detail.
Namely, the distance you can drive on a flat tire depends on several factors, including the extent of the damage, the type of tire (standard or run-flat), the vehicle's weight, and the driving conditions.
With that said, I won't recommend anything more than traveling a few hundred feet to park your vehicle in a safe area. And when you do that, you should drive really slowly – no faster than 5 mph (8 km/h) to minimize damage to the tire, rim, and suspension components. Even then, you should be prepared for some damage to the tire. It might still be drivable after the repair, but there is no guarantee.
So, put that warning triangle at least 150 feet (50 meters) behind your car, put the traffic safety vest, and tackle the issue immediately. By doing that, you will ensure that the tire and rim stay intact but also that you, the passengers, and other traffic participants are safe! Of course, if you are in a dangerous or inconvenient location, move your car to a safe spot, but make sure the distance is minimal.
Emergency Solutions for a Flat Tire
Even the most careful driver can find themselves with a flat tire. In these challenging situations, it's important to have a few temporary solutions up your sleeve. From spare tires to handy sealants, let's explore the options that can get you back on the road in a pinch.
1. The Role of a Spare Tire
A spare tire is my favorite when it comes to tackling the issue of having a flat tire. It always sits inside the trunk of your vehicle, and it is an immediate solution that can be done without any previous mechanical knowledge. All you need to do is open the owner's manual, find the tire replacement section, and follow the instructions.
However, it's important to note that this is meant to be used as a temporary fix that allows you to drive to the nearest service station for a proper tire repair or replacement. Sure, your full-size spare might be fairly new, but you should still have a properly inflated spare in the trunk, as any other puncture could leave you stranded.
Unfortunately, most modern cars aren't equipped with full-size spares and instead have a donut in the trunk. Automakers do this for packaging purposes – the smaller the spare tire, the more room there is in the cabin. Moreover, spare tires are lighter, which improves performance and reduces fuel consumption.
With that said, keep in mind that donut spares are not designed for long-term use or high-speed driving due to their smaller size and lower durability compared to regular tires. Most donuts are designed to be used for up to 70 miles (110 km) at speeds no higher than 50 mph (80 km/h). Also, they have lower traction than regular tires, meaning longer stopping distances and worse handling.
2. The Use of Tire Sealants and Inflators
Some modern cars are equipped with tire sealants, which are an even lighter and more compact solution than a donut spare.
Puncture sealants and inflators are portable, quick-fix solutions that can help seal minor punctures and reinflate your tire enough to get you to a nearby mechanic. These products are sprayed into the tire through the valve stem and can temporarily seal small leaks.
However, it's important to note that they are not a permanent fix. Just like a donut spare, there is a limitation to how far you can travel after using a tire sealant. In other words, you will still need to visit a technician for a proper tire repair.
Other remedies you can use are tire plugs and patches. Tire plugs are a better solution than sealants and will hold for longer. However, the process can also damage the internal components, like the belts and plies, thus weakening the tire. Many people use them, though I am personally not a big fan of them.
Meanwhile, tire patches are the safest way of tackling a puncture. In fact, most tire shops will put a patch on the inside of the tire when you bring it for a service. However, tire patching requires special tools for removing the tire, meaning you can't really do it while on the road.
3. Run-Flat Tires: A Possible Solution
Run-flat tires are specially designed tires that can be driven for a limited distance even after they lose all air pressure, typically up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) at a reduced speed of 50 mph (80 kph).
These can be a great solution for dealing with flats as they provide you with enough time to reach a safe location for tire repair or replacement.
However, run flats are much more expensive than regular tires, making them out of reach for most drivers. Besides, they don't provide the same ride comfort and have shorter treadlife. And fixing a puncture in a run-flat tire is also more expensive than on a regular tire.
Professional Assistance for Flat Tires
While there are a number of emergency solutions you can implement yourself, there's no substitute for professional help when dealing with flat tires. Professional services have the necessary equipment and expertise to properly address the issue, ensuring your safety on the road.
1. When to Call for Roadside Assistance
If you are unable to change the flat tire because you don't know how or are in a dangerous location, you should call roadside assistance. The same is true when your spare is also punctured or your puncture sealant kit is empty.
Every roadside assistance company today has a towing service that can bring your vehicle safely to the nearest tire service shop. Some even offer tire repair services! They will come to you with a van that has all the necessary tools, properly seal the puncture, and get you going in no time. Moreover, mobile tire repair services can also repair your spare and sell you a new tire sealant kit when necessary.
2. Tire Repair or Replacement: What's Best?
The decision to repair or replace a flat tire should always be made by a professional tire technician. If the puncture is small and located in the tread, a repair will be possible 90% of the time. However, wide punctures can't be easily repaired, and in most cases, the technician will recommend buying a new tire.
Furthermore, if the sidewall is damaged or the tire has been driven on while flat, a replacement will likely be necessary. A professional can make this assessment and provide advice on the best course of action.
Even if buying a new tire seems expensive at the moment, remember that improperly repaired tires can blow out at higher speeds and cause a serious accident. In that case, you will need to buy a new tire while also spending money on repairing your car. Not to mention, you and the passengers can also get seriously hurt, or you could hurt other traffic participants.
Despite recommendations from professionals, drivers still think it's fine to drive on a flat. I mean, what could happen, right?
Well, a friend of mine that is a total noob when it comes to cars learned it the hard way. He had a puncture while traveling with his family back from a holiday and had previously used the tire sealant on another puncture. Not only did he not purchase another puncture sealant, but he also drove for 20 miles (30 km) before reaching the nearest tire service station.
Naturally, the tire was completely disintegrated, and he was left with no other option than to buy a brand-new tire. So, instead of paying $15 for the tow service, he ended up paying $75 for a new tire. But the funniest thing is that he told me afterward that "they don't make tires like they used to before."
Well, mate, modern tires are the best they have been in history, providing traction and grip that were deemed impossible 20 years ago. It's the improper usage that damages the tire, not how good it's made. Moral of the story – take care of your tires, guys! It's not only cheaper but also much safer!
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.