Just like any other major component of your car, taking good care of your tires is crucial to ensuring optimum safety on the road. While we’re always taught to check the air pressure in our tires even before we roll out of our driveways, an equally important aspect of tire and road safety is having the tires properly balanced. The safety implications of unbalanced tires may not be readily apparent. However, as we’ll go through the different symptoms of unbalanced tires, you’ll hopefully realize how such a condition can affect not only your overall riding comfort, but also your safety on the road.
If you’ve been driving for quite a while, you’ll know something is wrong as soon as you feel like your car is shaking. First thing you may think about is the condition of the road. But even the roughest roads will not create vibrations that would seem like they’re shaking every bit of muscle you have in your body. You can somehow feel the vibrations travel across the entire chassis of your vehicle, often starting at the steering wheel. This is one of the most common symptoms of unbalanced tires.
But then, unbalanced tires are not the only cause of vehicle vibrations. If you notice the vibration to occur just as soon as you apply the brakes, there’s a chance that the problem is in your brake rotors. One way you can corroborate this is if you also feel vibrations from the brake pedal itself. You may even notice vibrations at the steering wheel starting to appear as soon as you reach 45 MPH to 50 MPH. As you increase your speed, you may also notice the vibrations to be getting much worse. Moreover, you may smell the unmistakable burnt smell just as soon as you stop. This is often an indication of the brake calipers sticking on.
So how do you know that it’s unbalanced tires that are causing the vibrations? If your steering wheel starts to shake as you drive at 50 to 55 MPH, typically getting worse around 60 to 65 before disappearing at higher speeds, then you have unbalanced tires.
You have to understand that the tires are what keep our vehicle in contact with the road surface. The vehicle’s weight should be distributed squarely on the entire width of the tires. If the tires are not properly balanced, then one side of the tire will be carrying more weight than the other. This translates to uneven rotation. And since the tires cannot ‘move’ or ‘shake’ the ground underneath them, they tend to ‘shake’ the body of the vehicle. This is what causes the vibrations.
Uneven or Excessive Tire Tread Wear
This is perhaps one of the easiest signs to identify as you can include it during your daily inspection of the tires especially for their air pressure. Look at the treads in your tire. These should show signs of even wear. This means that if one section is already worn out, you should expect the rest of the tire tread to be worn out as well. However, if you see that only one side or section is worn out while the other sections are still relatively in perfect condition, there’s a good chance your tires are out of balance.
It is easy to understand why there is uneven tread wear. As we already mentioned above, an unbalanced tire puts pressure on the section of the tire that is always in contact with the ground. Try to imagine this on the tire by looking at its cross-section or width (not the diameter). You will see that the tire tread will have continuous contact with the ground across its width.
However, if the tire is unbalanced, one side of it will be slightly higher than the other. As the tire spins or rotates, there is greater stress on this section of the tires. This creates uneven motion which also translates into vibrations (we already discussed this above). Since there is greater pressure or stress on this tire section, the treads are easily worn out.
The main issue with this is that this part of the tire is already wearing thin. This can lead to blowouts since the structural integrity of the tire is already weakened at this point. The more you use the car, the faster the rate of degradation of the tires, and the greater is the risk of running on flat tires. If this happens while you’re cruising on the highway, you know that this can spell trouble.
Problems in Steering
The tires are connected to the wheels which, in turn, are connected to your vehicle’s steering system. That is why if ever there is a problem anywhere in this system, you can almost always feel it in your steering wheel.
As already explained above, unbalanced tires beget uneven motion or rotation. This leads to shaking or vibrations that can be instantly felt in your steering wheel. It would seem as if you’re holding a vibrating massager. Of course, vibrations in the steering wheel can also be caused by an issue in the steering system. For instance, if there is already a buildup of particles or contaminants within the various components of the power steering system, this can also cause pulsations or vibrations in the steering wheel. This typically occurs when you fully turn the steering wheel in either direction. The good thing is that this problem can be easily fixed by flushing the power steering liquid and filling it up with fresh power steering fluid.
Vibrations in the steering wheel can make steering your vehicle a little bit problematic. The response of the steering system can be a bit sluggish or even delayed. In the event that you really need to turn your car in one direction to avoid getting into an accident, this problem in steering may as well spell your involvement in the accident.
For instance, you may have seen an individual suddenly crossing the street even though he or she is not supposed to. You turn your steering wheel so as to avoid hitting this pedestrian. But since your steering wheel is already sluggish because of the severe vibrations caused by unbalanced tires, there’s a chance that you will not be able to turn your vehicle in time to avoid hitting the person.
Bad Shock Absorbers and Wheel Bearings
Remember what we said about unbalanced tires moving or spinning unevenly? Well, there’s another problem to that. Since the tire is mated to your wheels and that your car’s wheels also contain wheel bearings while also connected to the shock absorber, these components can get damaged as well.
The issue is a lot similar to having uneven tire tread wear. Because of the uneven rotation of the tires, this also puts undue stress on the wheel bearings. When not corrected immediately, these bearings can go bad resulting in other manifestations such as unusually loud noise coming from either the tire or the wheel especially when driving at high speeds. The steering wheel can also feel a little ‘loose’. This can also increase your risk of accidents since you lose the much-needed response from the steering wheel.
The same is true with shock absorbers. These components of your car’s suspension system are important in making sure you don’t get a bumpy ride. They are important insofar as ride comfort is concerned. After all, you don’t want to be riding in a car that feels like you’re on a stage coach traversing the dirt trails of the west during the gold rush.
Poor Fuel Economy
There are many reasons why your car is showing very poor fuel economy. While poor driving habits – sudden acceleration, delayed braking, and unnecessary idling among others – is the number one cause of reduced fuel economy, having unbalanced tires can also lead to poor fuel economy. Just as inflating the tires with incorrect air pressure can lead to mediocre gas mileage, not having the correct balance can have the same effect.
Because the tires are unbalanced, they are spinning or rotating unevenly. This exerts pressure on a certain section of the tires causing vehicle and steering wheel vibrations as well as uneven tire treads. What you may not realize is that this uneven movement of the tires requires more power to roll the car. More power essentially means your engine will have to work harder. The only way this machine can accomplish such a thing is if it is going to burn more fuel than necessary. It’s like running on flat or underinflated tires. Since the weight of the vehicle is no longer adequately supported by the tires, it would take an unusually larger amount of energy to propel the vehicle forward.
While poor gas mileage will not have an impact on road safety, it will create a huge dent on your daily budget for fuel. And with soaring fuel costs, running with unbalanced tires is never a good way to save precious dollars.
If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in your car, you should have your tires checked and balanced immediately. Unfortunately, by the time you’ll notice any of these things it usually means you’ll be replacing your tires already.