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State of Mind: The Rubber Meets the Road

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Ahhh, it’s autumn. It’s time for that great autumn ritual here in Vermont. “Do you mean where everyone drives around slowly behind tour buses and cars with out-of-state plates and looks at the leaves, Lare?” No, of course not. I mean the ritual where we line up and wait in a first-come/first-serve scrum for WINTER TIRE CHANGEOVER!

I once tried to explain this ritual to a friend from Florida. It is, I said, where everyone tries to guess how long you can delay having your winter tires put on your car without getting caught by the first winter storm. It’s the opposite of the Joe’s Pond Ice-Out Contest, where you try to guess the time and date the brick will fall through the ice in the spring thaw. And just like the Ice-Out Contest, most of us guess wrong, which leads to long hours in waiting rooms crowded with people as glum as yourself because you should have done it earlier. Meanwhile, the snow piles up in the parking lot.

There is a second part to this ritual. It is the part where, after you’ve been waiting for hours, the tire guy comes up to you and informs you that you need to buy a new set of tires because last year’s winters are too worn to pass state safety inspection. This rude financial shock could have been anticipated, of course, if you had remembered Abe Lincoln back in the spring when you had the winter tires removed. You could have at least braced yourself then for this autumn expense.

I don’t know who first thought of bringing Honest Abe into it. As far as I know, a “tire” to Abe was a steel band pressed onto the rim of a wooden wagon wheel. But somewhere along the way someone figured out that if you took a Lincoln penny and turned it so Abe’s head was pointing down, inserted the penny into the tread of your tire, and you could see the top of Abe’s head, your tread was worn beyond usefulness. In my experience winter tires are pretty much shot before you can see the top of Abe’s head.

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Back in the old days, most cars used simple rear-wheel drive systems, so you only had to buy two winter tires. If something happened to one of those tires, you could just replace it. And you always had a bumper jack and a full-sized spare to tide you over.

But cars have changed. Almost everywhere you look nowadays, cars are not cars at all, but all-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle (AWD SUV) computers on wheels with as many sensors as the Starship Enterprise.

One feature of the AWD SUV is that it requires tires in sets of four, and those four tires must be the same size and tread. Otherwise you risk putting a strain on your car’s — and forgive me here for using technical terms — traction control inertial dampeners, half-shaft ramificators, center differential floor joists, and constant velocity coaster brakes. If a new tire gets ruined, it may be possible to replace just that tire, but if your tires are worn, even partially, and one of those tires cannot be patched, you may have to replace all four tires so they are all the same circumference. 

This has happened to me about three or four times over the years, so I’ve come to dread flat tires. But tire manufacturers and auto manufacturers have been working just as hard over those years to alleviate my concerns. 

My current AWD SUV was built by a company in which the designers decided to eliminate any concerns over spare tires by simply not providing one. Instead, they equipped the car with “run-flat” tires. These are tires that, if they are punctured, can be driven at low speed for a number of miles so you can get help. This, I was told by the dealer, was the wave of the future. “Run-flats” also have the added prestige of costing a lot more than regular tires. 

So one day when I comprehended the tire pressure indicator light on my dashboard had come on, I slowed down and proceeded with confidence to an exit to find a place to have the flat repaired. 

The technician informed me the tire could not be repaired, but that didn’t matter because just driving as far as I did had ruined the “run-flat” part. The good news, he said, was that I only had to replace that tire because my set of winter tires was relatively new. The bad news: he did not have a winter tire of the same size and tread. 

So my car took a ride on a tow truck to the dealer, where it waited for FIVE days until a replacement winter tire was located and shipped. In the meantime, I thought back to those callow days of yore when people would actually jack up their car by the side of the road, put on a spare, and go on their merry way within an hour.