Don’t panic. It’s not as awful as you think.
Not long ago I got a call from my daughter, one that all moms dread: “Mom, we have a flat tire! What do we do???”
Both my daughters were in the car and they were panicked. They were on the highway and road flotsam slashed the front tire wide open.
Not all flat tires are created equal; some are easy to fix, others can lead to a bad accident. How you handle it is the key to being safe and ensuring it isn’t a horrible experience.
It’s Not If You’ll get a Flat, but When, so Prepare
The first thing you definitely need to prepare is a plan for roadside assistance. If your car’s warranty doesn’t have a roadside assistance package, there are other options including AAA’s coverage or coverage through your insurance policy.
The other thing that helps is to have a spare tire, though not all cars come with a spare (it saves fuel over the long term and cash up front in the purchase price). Be sure to know if your car has a spare tire or not.
What you don’t need to do is plan to change the tire yourself. While yes, it’s great to know how to change a tire, the reality is that on the side of the road, perhaps in dark or bad weather, changing a tire is a job for a pro. And, many tires are installed with pneumatic tools ensuring lug nuts are super tight. You may need more torque than the gravity of your body weight to get them loose, so even if you know how, you may need the help of a pro.
Roadside Assistance Plans Are Great, But Not Created Equal
This is my favorite way to have a flat tire: Dial the number for roadside assistance and then someone comes to fix it.
Most new car warranties include a complimentary roadside assistance plan — with a limited number of years or miles covered, and details of each plan can vary. Generally, they cover the cost of towing to a dealer or repair facility and may cover the cost of swapping your flat for the spare. From there, repairing the tire or getting a new one is on you.
These are great for car dealers because if they tow your car they can service the flat. This lets them step in to sell you any additional necessary services—like replacement tires or wheel repairs—rather than a local garage with a tow truck. The upside is your car is cared for by a dealer who is familiar with what your car needs. The downside is that this can be more expensive.
If your car doesn’t have a roadside assistance or the plan has expired, AAA’s plan works in a similar way. Insurance plans vary and can include other benefits like trip interruption reimbursement and coverage for damage to your vehicle, which a manufacturer’s warranty may or may not cover.
First Things First: How to Know Your Tire is Flat
This might seem obvious but it might not be. In fact, if the tire pressure monitor hadn’t gone off I might not have known I had a flat. I was driving slowly on downtown streets and the car felt pretty normal. Once the TPMS light flashed on the dashboard I was sure I had an issue, but the feeling and sound were only very slight.
If you’re not sure if you’ve had tire damage, slow down, listen and feel for anything unusual while you find a safe place to pull over to inspect your tires.
Slow Down, Maintain Control and Find a Safe Place to Park
If you think your tire is flat, the first thing to do is to slow down, put your flashers on and pull over to a safe place— ideally off the road or highway. If you can exit the highway, all the better. Don’t drive very far or fast on a flat tire or you risk ruining the tire rims; these cost a lot more to replace than just the tire.
If you’re on the highway—and that is a common place for tire damage to occur—pay close attention to controlling the car. Without a fully functioning tire you can lose all wheel drive capability and other safety functions like lane keep assist and the car can be more difficult to steer.
Call Roadside Assistance
Once you’re in a safe place call for roadside assistance. Be sure to keep the number in the car or glovebox or better, in your phone’s contact list. If you don’t have it at hand, you can also search on a smart phone. When my daughters called in a panic I told them the number would be in the information in the glove box. While they looked, I Googled Hyundai’s roadside assistance number and texted it them faster than they could find it in the manual.
When I had a flat tire during a week-long test drive in the Lincoln Aviator, I was easily able to find the number for Lincoln’s road side service right inside the manual cover. I called and operators quickly located a repair service and had a repair person quickly dispatched. I waited about 30 minutes for the technician to arrive.
Hyundai’s service took a bit more time since my daughter’s car didn’t have a spare. Her car had to be towed so the operator had to locate a dealership and with an available tow truck.
What Happened After I Called Roadside Assistance
After I spoke with Lincoln’s roadside assistance operator I got several text messages letting me know the location and estimated time of arrival of the technician. It took him about 30 minutes to get to me, which was fine; I’ve waited longer before. I was lucky to be in a parking lot at a bank during the day; had it been at night I would have stayed in the car with the doors locked and on the phone with my husband.
Once the technician arrived — I expected a truck but he was driving a Toyota Prius!— he assessed the situation and got to work swapping the tire for the spare. The spare tire is actually a spare wheel and tire; he removed the flat and replaced it with the spare.
Luckily I didn’t have anything in the cargo area of the Aviator; if I had I would have had to move things around both to remove the spare tire and to accommodate the flat. At 22” it takes up a lot of space but it fit in the cargo area with the third row folded flat.
Driving on a Spare Tire — Another Caution to Consider
Just 15 minutes later and I was on my way. I had about an hour drive on the highway to get home. The spare tire can go the distance but not at the same speeds I am used to for highway driving. Spare tires have a suggested speed limit of 50 MPH; I could drive closer to 60 but not much more. If I forgot and drove faster I found the car harder to control.
And, not all the driver assist features work when the spare tire is in use. I noticed that the all wheel drive, adaptive cruise and lane keep assist functions didn’t work. The system detected the difference in wheel sizes and since this is not as predictable and demands control from the driver, the systems were not available.
Fixing the Problem with New Tires
Yes, I said tires. Often, when replacing a blown tire you need to think about replacing two tires—the damaged tire and its same-end-of-the-car companion. This will ensure even wear and performance of the tires. And, consider going to your dealer to have the tire or tires replaced. I have heard some owners say the the dealer had to reset car’s computer to ensure the the driver assist and safety features are working properly.
If you’re worried about the added expense of buying tires from a dealer, you can research the tires you need and find the best price, then ask the dealer to match that price or you can buy them on line and have them shipped to the dealer.
And be sure the spare goes back into its bay. So it’s there for you next time … which hopefully, will be never!