The Truth About Worn Tires and Tire Replacement: What You Need to Know

What New Tread Looks Like Versus Worn Tires
What new tread looks like versus worn tires. Photo: Michelin

And, how to know when to buy new tires!

Michelin doesn’t want you to buy new tires.

Not before you need them, anyway. The company is committed to being the safest tire on the road. And now, it wants to also be seen as the most responsible and sustainable tire on the road. But being responsible and sustainable, in the tire world anyway, means getting the most mileage out of your tires. And it turns out, many people —many, many people—replace their tires too soon.

So here’s a stunning statistic: Globally we waste $25 billion on unnecessary tire purchases. $25 billion!!! Couldn’t you do a lot with an extra $25 billion?

And, replacing tires before it’s necessary costs the average car owner $250 every two years.

But it gets worse: 400 million tires unnecessarily go into landfills every year because tires are not very recyclable.

Financial Cost Of Worn Tires

If you’re buying new tires before you need them, this is what its costing you. Photo: Michelin

Get Your Money’s Worth From Your Tires

Our best defense, for now, is to get the most use out of our tires and only replace them when it’s necessary. So how do you know when it’s really time to buy new tires? I was Michelin’s guest at a track demonstration at the company’s North American HQ to learn the difference between how new tires and worn tires perform on wet pavement.

Here is the surprising thing: worn tires, even those that are worn nearly down to the legal limit, can perform nearly as well as new tires. I’m not sure I’d believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

Never buy tires again??? Michelin’s sustainable tire concept is where our future is headed

Testing New And Worn Tires

When new, Brand B tires look great. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Putting New Vs. Worn Tires to the Test

The Michelin team pointed out that most tire performance ratings only apply to new tires, not worn tires. But how a tire performs— the distance it takes to stop the car—can vary greatly based on the rubber compounds, the tread design, how much of the tread grips the pavement and how much tread is left on the tire. 

To learn the difference, we tested out four sets of tires: two new and two worn, to see how they performed on wet pavement. The biggest surprise was this: The worn set of tires from Brand A (we never learned which brands we were testing) performed about as well as the new tires from Brand B. And the worn tires from Brand B? It took a lot more braking and steering to control the car. This last part was a real eye-opener.

Meet the test driver who is helping Michelin to balance track performance and sustainability

Testing Worn Tires

When Brand B is worn down the pavement gripping power wears away, too. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How to Know When Tire Replacement Might Be Necessary

Knowing your car and how it performs under typical driving conditions is a great way to gauge when its time to check your tires.

Measure your stopping distance. After all, you probably stop your car many times a day, right? And you probably stop it in all sorts of conditions, like on dry pavement, on wet pavement and even occasionally in snowy or icy conditions. You probably stop at the same intersection every day, too. THAT is where to start taking notice. How soon do you have to start braking in order to stop safely? Take note. When you feel like you need to start braking sooner, note that too. When your stopping distance starts to grow, from, say, 100 feet from the stop sign to 150, it’s time to check your tires.

Notice your car’s traction. Do you feel the rear end slipping or sliding through curves or on wet roads? That could mean it’s time to take a look at your tires.

How you feel behind the wheel? Do you feel as if you constantly need to prepare to brake? Do you feel like you need to work harder to steer your car? Time to check your tires.

How many miles are on your tires? The typical set of tires should last between 40,000 and 60,000 miles, and with cautious driving, could last up to 70,000 miles. Check the warranty on your tires to be sure how many miles manufacturer believes you should get from your tires.

The Michelin team told us that most rubber compounds perform well despite a tire’s age, but it is worth noting that winter tires will wear down faster in warm months, and a car is garaged for a long period may experience less grip on the pavement than new tires.

What New Tread Looks Like Versus Worn Tires

What new tread looks like versus worn tires. Photo: Michelin

Will Your Tires Pass Inspection?

They will if they have more than 2/32nds of tread. So, just go out and measure to see if you have 2/32nds of the tread or greater. Ha. You might as well ask me to say that in Greek.

Here’s what the heck that means: 2/32nds of tread is the legal minimum of tread you need on your tires to pass inspection in most states. Most tires have 10/32nds of tread when new, and when 80 percent of the tread has worn down, or its reached 2/32nds, it’s time for new tires.

How Worn Tires Perform

Michelin performance tested a number of tires to see how they perform new, mid-life and fully worn Surprisingly, some tires that scored great when new didn’t do so well toward the end of life. Photo: Michelin

How to Know For Certain That You Need New Tires

  • Don’t just take the mechanic’s word for it—remember that $250 statistic? That goes right from your pocket to his.
  • Turn the steering wheel to one side so you can see the tread on your tire and take a good look. Can you still see the sipes, or cuts through the tread that cause tires to grip the road? Are there lumps, bulges or other irregularities in the sidewalls?
  • Can you see the wear bars between the tread rows?
  • Take the penny test: Insert a penny, with Lincoln’s head down, into the tread; if you can see the top of his head, your tread is low.

Until your tires are truly worn down, they should perform well. That’s what Michelin thinks, so the company wants to start a conversation about how worn tires perform. And we agree. I would love to see 25,000-mile ratings and 50,000-mile ratings so I know that the money I’m spending on tires is money well spent.

Disclosure: I was Michelin’s guest for this test drive event; all opinions are my own.

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Replacing Worn Tires Early Not Only Costs You Money, It Adds Waste To Landfills. Here'S What You Need To Know For Both Savings And Safety.

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss