The Dangers of The “Donut”

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If the government is so concerned about our “safety,” why doesn’t it require cars to have real spare tires?donut lead

As you may know, most new cars don’t … because of the government.

Well, because of government fuel economy mandates – which pressure car companies to shave off weight wherever possible in order to lighten up the cars they build in order to decrease the amount of fuel they use.

The catch is that it’s hard to lighten up cars without also compromising their ability to absorb impact forces in a crash.

Spare tires are not structural; they don’t help a car’s crash test scores.

But they do add weight. And the additional weight reduces fuel economy. So, they go.

Partially, at least.

There are very few – if any – new cars that have a proper full-sized spare. That is, a wheel and tire exactly like the others, interchangeable, that can replace any of them.

Permanently, if need be.space 4

In the days before Uncle became Chief Engineer – before the federal government laid down ever-escalating demands that new cars deliver “x” MPG or else so-called “gas guzzler fines” would be applied – and transferred to the buyer – most new cars came with a full-size spare.

This was … safe.

If you got a flat – in particular, a non-repairable flat such as a sidewall blowout or tear – you weren’t stuck. Possibly, in a not-good part of town. Or by the side of a busy freeway.

You could pop the trunk, jack the car up, replace the flat with a wheel/tire just like the others – and drive away.

As fast as you liked – as long as you liked.

Because the spare was the same size/type as the other three tires.

Modern cars – if they have a spare at all – typically have a “space saver” (really, a weight-saver) tire. It is also known as a “donut” spare – because it’s not really a spare.

It is a temporary, emergency-use only tire. It says so, right on the thing.

Because it is typically a very tall and skinny thing, with a disproportionately smaller footprint than the damaged wheel/tire it “replaces” – which it doesn’t, really.

Again, read the bright yellow warning label on the thing.space saver 2

It will warn you that the “space saver” is designed only to get you – to gimp you – to the first place within 50 miles or so that can sell you a real tire. That is, a tire of the same type and size as the one that went flat.

The space saver is not designed – not safe – to drive on at sustained speeds above 50-something MPH, either. Not my opinion; read the warning label.

That’s great news if the next-closest service station/tire shop is 50 miles away… on the Interstate. Where traffic is running 75-80.

It will also impart evil handling (and braking) characteristics because of its skinnyness.

This is becoming a serious safety issue.

When space savers first came out – back in the ‘70s – most cars still had 15×7 wheels. The space saver was smaller than the others, but not as disproportionately so as is typical today. Because, today, most new cars have at least 16 inch wheels and most have 17 or 18 inch wheels. Many have 19 inch and even larger wheels – with 50-series (or even wider) tires. Try to imagine the effect on a car’s balance when one of the four – your weight-saving “donut” – is a fourth as wide as the other three. That much-reduced contact patch on one corner of your car becomes a big safety problem in the event you have to brake violently or swerve.space saver 3

Yet Uncle is mute.

This is of a piece with Uncle’s blase attitude toward the killer airbags every car built since the late  1990s has as part of its mandatory suite of “safety” equipment. And it’s not just the killer Takata air bags, which are of defective design. The ones that aren’t defective and work exactly as designed also kill.

But Uncle remains silent.

No mewls, either, about the increased risk of side-impact accidents resulting from the driver pulling into traffic from a side street being unable to see traffic barreling his way because of the six-inch-thick A, B and C pillars necessary to make the car’s roof strong enough to support the weight of the car if it turns upside down (another of Uncle’s “safety” mandates) or the impaired view to the rear caused by tall, vision-obstructing “anti-whiplash” head rests – also mandated by Uncle for “safety.”sidwall damage

Ah well.

And many new cars don’t even have the “donut” spare. It adds weight, too. And that makes it awfully tempting to ditch it, in order to achieve even a fractional uptick in MPGs.

In lieu of the “donut” some cars have run-flat tires or inflator kits. These are nifty, assuming a conventional – a repairable – flat. If you’re dealing with a sidewall tear (or a bent rim, as from hitting a bad pothole) you are out of luck. No inflator kit is going to fix that. You are stuck.

In a bad neighborhood, perhaps. Or maybe by the side of a busy freeway, far from home – or help.

It’s not very safe.

But it’s Uncle’s gift to you.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. A couple of days ago I was traveling on one our faster auto-movers and encountered a crackerjack car with one of those donuts on the right front. I was doing 55 and he zipped by me doing at least 65.

    That donut was wobbling faster than a hula girl on a dashboard!

    I slowed way down anticipating a rolling donut into my lane. Thankfully, nothing bad happened.

    Just glad to be driving a pickup truck with a real spare tire!

  2. As a teen, I had a crummy 70s Volaire wagon that had bad suspension. The wheels were slanted so it always got flat tires. I kept a supply of used tires in the back and became a tire changing pro. I miss the old jacks, the kind that stood up and fit into a slot on the bumper. Very easy to use. I could get rolling in five minutes. I moved up in the world and got a 90s Mustang. When it got a flat, I could not figure out that stupid scissor jack. Fortunately, a nice biker pulled over and helped me. He tested the psi on my donut and it was very low, too low to drive on. Again fortunately, a nice farmer took me to his nearby home and aired it up in his barn so I could get to the next big town. As a woman who often travels alone, I hated how this pos equipment put me at the mercy of strangers. I guess I should probably get the donut checked out in my current car and attempt to learn the scissor jack.

    • Hi Amy,

      A Volare… love it! 🙂

      And yeah: I’d get the donut checked. Be careful w/the scissors jack as they are often flimsy and – my opinion – dangerous. I put a can of Fix -a-Flat in my wife’s vehicle and have told her to use it to get on the road again quickly and forget worrying about dealing with the cheesy scissors jack or the crappy donut spare! This is a good option unless you have sidewall damage… also, be sure to get the Fix-A-Flat’d tire repaired properly as soon as possible – and let the tire guy know it has Fix-a-Flat in it.

      • Speaking of jacks, I remember when Grandpa upgraded the farm pickup from a 57 Ford to a 67 Ford. A friend comes over to see it and says “Open the hood.” Then points to the flimsy screw jack, (not even a scissor, a screw) and says, “Tape a quarter to that, then throw it as far as you can. With the quarter on it, that way you know you threw something away.”

  3. Tire pressure warnings helped me. Was able to pull into the gas station and air the tire. Inspected the tire and found a screw. I am surprised there isn’t airless tire options by now.

  4. I own 2 cars without spares, one has run flats (and run loud) and the other has a can of fix a flat and a compressor. I added a plug kit to both cars. My ’96 Roadmaster Estate has a matching alloy wheel for a spare!

    • A plug kit is fine and filling the tire with a can of fix a flat is fine too…..as long as you get it fixed properly when you find a tire repair place. But plugs will come out of a tire at high speed(60) and it’s almost like having a blowout. They seem to work fine on lawn mowers and the like but they’ll give it up on even a backhoe or a roadgrader after a while. It’s a good way to finish a day…hopefully. It’s not a good way to finish the day on a automobile though. I’ll plug a big truck tire if I can(this is easier said than done)but I won’t run it a mile further than I have to.

  5. I have one of those cars with a fix of flat and inflator kit. Seriously considering buying a 5th tire and wheel and just putting in the trunk. It’ll take up 50% of the space, but I’ll have a tire.

  6. Some cars are now selling in Canada with ZERO spare tires. Mostly the little cars meant for urban environments.

  7. I’m somewhat surprised people use a spare much at all. A $20 air compressor and an $8 plug kit is faster, safer, easier and a real fix to anything other than a catastrophic failure or sidewall tear. You can plug a tire and be back on the road in less than 5 minutes.

    • I would have agreed with you once, John, until I experienced the Pirelli Scorpion. In less than one year, I had two – yes, two – sidewalls blow out.

      Minnesota is the land of potholes, as well, so the odds of a monster blowout are actually pretty high.

      My mother-in-law drives a new Volvo S60. It doesn’t even have a donut. Just some fix-a-flat and a crappy little compressor. The solution for the car companies seems to be roadside assistance service rather than any DIY help.

    • Hi John,

      A patched tire is a damaged tire; it’s ok to drive on it – but I would not subject it to high-speed loads/cornering. Also, sidewall failure is fairly common – in part because sidewalls are often very thin on low aspect ratio tires. I’ve lost two in the past year (press cars). Bad potholes in both instances.

  8. Some cars at least still offer you the option (at extra cost, of course) of getting a full size spare. But I suppose soon (if not already) this option will have to be more expensive – to cover the gas guzzler tax it triggers.
    I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always assumed the problems with a ‘donut’ are worse when it goes on 1 of the drive wheels. Please feel free to enlighten me if I’m wrong. Of course on the increasing number of AWD vehicles, all wheels are drive wheels.

    • Not sure I’ve seen a temporary spare that didn’t have a warning of no more than 50 mph for 50 miles.

      Then there’s the mismatch phenomena that’s probably becoming less as vehicles come from the factory with ridiculously sized tires and wheels so the spare probably matches the overall circumference negating the need to put the spare on a non-driven hub and move one of the matching tire/wheels to the driven hub as I have had to do with limited slip differential equipped vehicles.

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