A person changing a flat tire

In the best of times, a flat tire can be a time-consuming nuisance that may require a tow and the unplanned expense of buying one, or often two, replacement tires. But during the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing may make the situation an even dicier proposition. 

Fellow motorists may be less likely to stop. You might not want to ask a friend for help and may even question whether it's a good idea to call roadside assistance.

AAA, which responds to about 4 million flat-tire calls a year, is still providing roadside assistance. Its service providers follow sanitization guidelines to protect themselves and members, including wearing fresh gloves for each call and wiping down vehicle surfaces.

But the best way to handle a flat is to do everything you can ahead of time to prevent one and then to be prepared in case it does happen to you.

Car Maintenance

“A simple tire check is smart medicine to catch potential problems before you set out on the open road,” advises Consumer Reports tire program manager Gene Petersen. Also, don't ignore the tire pressure light that appears in the instrument panel. This light will illuminate when one or more tires are significantly underinflated. "Check the tires as soon as possible when you see a warning," says Petersen.

He adds that having an emergency kit onboard is important, complete with reflective triangles to warn other motorists, work gloves, and a bottle of water. (Learn more about car emergency kits.)

Only 19 percent of consumers properly check and inflate their tires, according to the National High Traffic Safety Administration. Consequently, one in four cars has a tire that is significantly underinflated, says the agency. This not only means heat can build up in the tire, risking failure, but underinflation can hurt fuel economy.

There can be multiple reasons for a flat tire, including some that are beyond your control, but a routine inspection can help avoid some common causes and even identify a developing problem that is easier to address at home than on the road.

Below we will review how to inspect your tires, what to do if you experience a flat, and touch on what you should know to change a tire.  

How to Inspect Your Tires

Look over the tires for uneven wear and damage that could warrant their replacement. Pay attention to both the tread and the sidewalls. A nail, screw, or tear may not be obvious, or even causing a significant leak, but they can lead to serious problems later.

Check the inflation when the tires are cold (before driving), referencing the sticker in the driver’s doorjamb for the recommended air pressure. Check the spare tire while you’re at it, if the car has one.

Measure tread depth with a quarter. If the top of George Washington’s head is just visible when placed in a tread groove, the tread has about a 4⁄32-inch depth. That’s enough to offer some all-weather grip, but it signals the time to start thinking about replacement.

Tires truly need to be replaced by 2⁄32 inch, as measured using a penny and Abraham Lincoln’s head. By 2⁄32 inch, tires have significantly reduced wet traction and resistance to hydroplaning—skimming on water.

Perform these simple steps monthly to keep your tires in good shape and reduce the risk of problems.

Also remember to have your tires rotated, which can extend their life and help them to wear evenly. (Some tire retailers will provide this service for free if you purchased the tires from them.) The owner’s manual should advise on the frequency. In absence of automaker guidance, the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association recommends rotating tires every 5,000 to 8,000 miles.

What You Should Do if You Get a Flat Tire

If the tire suddenly goes flat while driving, remain calm. Keep the steering steady as the car begins to pull. (A gradual air leak will take longer to be noticed, but it will develop a similar tugging effect.) Ease off the throttle, put on your turn signal, and gently move to the side of the road.

Find the nearest, flat location to stop. A breakdown lane or roadside shoulder can work, but a rest stop or a parking lot is even better. Remember, you want to position the vehicle where it can be worked on safely and won’t get stuck. If you are alongside a road, put on your hazard lights to warn other cars.

If you’re in a spot where you can’t immediately pull over, such as on a bridge or along a narrow road, put on your hazard lights using the red triangular button on the dash and limp the car to a safer area. You can roll on the tire for a short distance, but it can further deteriorate and you might damage the wheel. Still, that may be your only option to get to a safe place to stop.

Be careful opening your door, especially if you're near traffic.

Set up reflective traffic triangles behind your vehicle. Place them further away on high-speed roads, at least 100 feet behind you. At highway speeds, cars may travel 100 feet in the blink of an eye.

Inspect the tire. Is it a puncture or sidewall tear? Either way, it needs to be replaced, but knowing the cause of your flat tire may have an impact on your replacement strategy. 

Is There Even a Spare Tire?

spare tire kit

Not every car comes with a spare tire anymore. Reviewing the cars Consumer Reports has tested from the 2017 model year to present, we found:

  • 103 had temporary spare tires (63%)
  • 27 had sealant kits (17%)
  • 17 had run-flat tires (10%)
  • 13 had full-sized spares (8%—trucks and large SUVs exclusively)
  • 3 had nothing (2%)

It is important to understand how your vehicle is equipped and to potentially upgrade. Many models that come with sealant kits have a cutout under the cargo floor or trunk to hold at least a temporary spare. Your dealership can sell you a spare tire kit, with the tire, mounting hardware, jack, and tools. Similarly, adding an inflation kit (with sealant and electric air compressor) can give you options for a roadside repair due to a simple tread puncture. Note that sealants will not be able to plug a large hole or a sidewall tear. 

Run-flat tires enable you to skip the whole roadside adventure. When a run-flat loses air, it essentially acts like a temporary spare, enabling you to travel a short distance to a shop for repair or replacement.  

Tips for Changing a Flat Tire

jacking up car to replace a flat tire

“Learn how to change the tire on your car from the convenience, and safety, of your driveway,” says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports chief mechanic. “The car’s owner’s manual will walk you through each step. By practicing, you will have the confidence to change the tire on your own, should the need arise.”

The car needs to be on level, solid ground in order for you to safely use the jack. Carrying a small wooden board in the trunk can help create a solid flat surface when the tire has to be changed on dirt—a common occurrence.

  • Put the car in Park (for an automatic transmission) or in gear (manual transmission). Then set the parking brake.
  • Get out the owner’s manual and review the procedure for changing the tire. Even though you have practiced this, you are in a stressful situation. Take the time to make sure you do it right.
  • Get out the spare tire, jack, and needed tools. Everything should be in the trunk or cargo area. With trucks, minivans, and some SUVs, the tire may be stored under the vehicle and will need to be lowered down.
  • Use a floor mat to make a more comfortable area to kneel upon while you're changing the tire.
  • Loosen (but don't remove) the lug nuts with the tire iron, turning counterclockwise, before you begin jacking up the car.
  • Jack up the car. Position the jack under the specific point of the vehicle's body as spelled out in the owner’s manual. Follow the instructions to the letter, because if you get it wrong, you may damage the car or risk injury to yourself and others. Lift the side of the car until the flat tire is a few inches off the ground, then remove the lug nuts and flat tire.
  • Install the spare tire. Lightly tighten the lug nuts in a cross pattern—alternating across like you’re drawing a star, rather than sequentially around the circle—so the spare is snug. Repeat the pattern, securing the wheel so it doesn’t wiggle.
  • Lower the jack and remove it from under the car.
  • Tighten the lug nuts firmly. Again, do this in a cross pattern.
  • Put the flat tire, jack, tools, safety triangles, and any other gear back into the car.
  • Drive a few miles and then tighten the lug nuts one more time—without jacking up the car.

If You Call for Help

Don't sit in the car or stand in front of it when waiting for help. Both places are perilous should another car strike yours. Instead, stay well away from the road and behind the vehicle.

Respectfully keep your distance from the mobile technician when he or she arrives. Aim to handle any approvals and payments verbally or over the phone, avoiding direct contact.

Disinfect any surfaces or tools that the technician comes in contact with. And of course, wash your own hands when you can. 

What’s Next?

Compact spares, often referred to as donuts, are only meant to get you to a service station. They have very limited service life and aren't meant to be used above 50 mph. Likewise, tire sealant is meant to provide a temporary fix. With a compact spare, run-flat, or sealed tire, you will want to visit a local tire shop for either a permanent repair or replacement.

Most dealerships and tire stores remain open during the pandemic to address emergencies like this. For instance, two big firms, Discount Tire and Jiffy Lube, say most of their stores are open but it's a good idea to call ahead to check on a shop's coronavirus protocols and the availability of replacement tires.

Some firms also offer mobile tire installation.

Check your owner's manual regarding mixing a new replacement tire with worn tires. You may need to buy two or four new tires to retain balanced performance.