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What's your life worth? Tread lightly with car maintenance

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Warren Barlow
  • 43 Airlift Wing Chief of Safety
How many of you would risk your life for $400? Most of us would probably say no way, but many Airmen take these exact odds and gamble everyday. They jump in their cars and drive to work on worn-out tires.

On average, a new set of tires costs around $400, although this price may vary based on size and speed rating. When worn-out tires fail physically with a blow out or fail to perform as expected, the consequences can be deadly. Best-case scenario is that you will just get into a minor fender bender, but even this can be very costly, as you may have to pay higher insurance premiums for the next several years.

Additionally, the police may cite you for failure to maintain your vehicle properly and causing the accident. Cha-ching! There goes more money down the drain in traffic fines. That $400 starts to look real cheap in a hurry.

Pope suffered several major car accidents over the past two months from mixing worn-out tires and wet pavement. In two accidents, vehicles hydroplaned out of control and resulted in one fatally injured Airman and another in critical condition. Hydroplaning occurs when your vehicle loses traction from traveling too fast over a wet road surface. Worn-out tires greatly reduce the speed and depth of water that your vehicle can handle before losing control. You cannot control the amount of water on the road, but you can control the condition of your tires and your vehicle's speed.

Hydroplaning is insidious and no vehicle or person is immune. Even brand new tires can hydroplane in deep water if the vehicle is traveling fast enough.

Twenty years ago, I personally hydroplaned and lost control of my 1976 Buick Skylark. I made three 360-degree turns in the middle of the interstate before coming to rest inches from an on-coming semi truck. As I spun, everything went into slow motion and the centrifugal forces tried to throw me into the passenger seat. Luckily, I had my seatbelt on and I was able stay at the wheel and regain control of my car just in time. Without my seatbelt, I would not be here today.

At the time, I was a poor college student and thought I could not afford new tires, but that incident made me realize how wrong I was. The money was there, I just needed to reprioritize my spending habits.

How do I know if I need to replace my tires? As a rule of thumb, you can use the Penny Test. Place a penny into the tread of your tire with Lincoln's head pointing towards the center of the tire. If you can still see the top of Lincoln's head showing, your tires need replacing.

Most Airmen do not operate worn-out tires on purpose; many times, they are just unaware of the hazard. To aid with awareness, the Wing Safety Office recently began random tire checks of vehicles on Pope AFB as part of our good wingman program. Here is how it works. We document vehicles with worn tires and notify the member by placing a wingman form on their vehicle highlighting the deficiency. Additionally, we notify unit first sergeant to ensure they are aware of the increased risk to a member of their unit.

Working together, we can help protect each other and reduce costly mishaps. I hate shelling out money for new tires too, but when I look at the possible consequences, neglect is not an option. How much is your life worth?