Don’t Just Check the Air . . .

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For decades, people have been advised to regularly check/make sure their vehicle’s tires haven’t lost air – especially after the mid-1990s-era Firestone tire/Ford Explorer rollover fiasco.

The Explorer of that era wasn’t dangerous, per se.

If it was not driven fast on under-inflated (and not especially well-made) Firestone tires. If it was, what could and sometimes did happen was that a tire would fail on account of the heat built up by driving the Ford fast on an under-inflated, not-very-well-made tire. Compounding the problem was that the Explorer of that era was based closely on the Ranger pick-up of the same era and had a not-very-sophisticated suspension system and a high center of gravity that many people who didn’t drive trucks weren’t used to. The result off all these factors added up was a suddenly uncontrollable Explorer that had a tendency to barrel-roll itself (and those inside) to death.

From this fiasco came the tire pressure monitoring systems all new vehicles have had since then, by federal mandate. Including cars that didn’t have a higher tendency to become uncontrollable if a tire suddenly failed due to being under-inflated.

That these tire pressure monitors are often not reliable – the indicated pressure is often not the actual pressure – and for that reason many people just ignore the warning light when it comes on (and drive around on under-inflated tires) doesn’t seem to matter much to the mandators. Nor that the monitors encourage people to not check their tire pressure themselves  – as in manually, using a physical gauge – and thus encourage people to drive around on under-inflated tires they assume are ok because the “check tires” light isn’t on.

Or which they ignore when it’s on because they assume it’s not reliable.

Anyhow, it’s not just the air pressure that’s a good idea to check – yourself – every couple of weeks, at least.

It’s also a good idea to make sure the wheels are tight. More finely, that the lug nuts haven’t worked themselves loose. Or maybe you had a Biden Moment and forgot to torque them down.

It can happen – and when it does, what happens next is worse than just a flat tire. I know – because it happened to me about a week ago. And it could have been a lot worse than it was.

Backstory: I bought a set of tires for my ’02 Nissan Frontier; I dropped these off – along with my truck’s wheels – at my buddy the mechanic’s shop to mount and balance when he had the time. He called me when they were ready and I stopped by to pick them up and took them home – where I installed them on m my truck (which I had up on my lift in the meanwhile).

I thought I torqued the lug nuts down. I am usually very OCD about such things. But – unless someone was trying to get me – it turns out I didn’t.

But I didn’t realize it, at first.

I decided to drive the truck into town – because I needed to get some drainage rocks and putting a load into the Cadillac CT4 I was test driving (reviewed here) at the time didn’t seem like the right (or nice) thing to do. Especially now that I am getting GM cars to test drive again (waiting on Mercedes to come back around).

Almost as soon as I got onto the main road, I began to hear a strange noise. It sounded like a stick (a big stick) or something like that was stuck underneath and maybe hitting the spinning driveshaft.

Stupidly – being in a hurry – I ignored it until it got louder. Until I began to feel something weird, too. I decided to pull over into a church parking lot to have a look. I crawled underneath and didn’t see anything. I did a close walk-around – and didn’t notice anything. Popped the hood, looked under there. Having found nothing, I decided – stupidly – to get back in and keep on going.

I got about 200 yards down the road – at which point the left front wheel dropped off – and bounced off down the road. The truck came to a spark-showering halt, just off the road.

You can guess what had happened.

Whether as a result of sabotage – maybe someone doesn’t like your libertarian car guy! – or (more likely) my own Biden Moment – the lugs nuts holding that wheel to the hub worked loose and then off.

Then the wheel came off.

Thank the Motor Gods, no one was coming in the opposite lane when my wheel left my truck and bounced a few times down the opposite lane before bouncing off into the woods. I was able to find it and – after I got my buddy to come and pick me up and drive me back to the house for some tools (and a jack) I was able to put the wheel (and tire) back on. Miraculously, none of the wheel studs had sheared off. I pirated four lugs nuts (one each) from the truck’s other three wheels, enough to limp home at 20 MPH on a side road and put the truck back on my lift.

I went to town in the CT4 and got six new lug nuts and that was all it costs me – plus the time and embarrassment.

It might have cost me more, had the wheel come off when I was going faster – or going into a curve. Or if someone else had been coming the other way at just the wrong time. Thankfully, none of that happened. But the take-home point is it could have.

And the lesson to relearn is: Make sure the lugs are tight when you re-install wheels (or have them re-installed by a tire shop, etc.). Because knowing is smarter than assuming.

And less costly than forgetting.

. . .

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48 COMMENTS

  1. Did that myself Eric once long ago… 1988 Grand Am with the quad-4 and a 5 speed stick…. Front left tire.

    In my case though it was around 80 mph in the dark on a remote highway with zero traffic lights. Felt like a strange vibration at first which got worse and worse. I assumed a failed wheel bearing and pulled over. The wheel didn’t come off but the holes in the alloy rim were…. ummmm… no longer round. So lots of swearing and a rim later I was back in action. I had forgotten to tighten the rear wheel on that side too but the 20 foot pounds of initial snugging had held fast somehow.

    Haven’t made that mistake again!

  2. Did the same thing once, Eric, so don’t feel bad.

    I swapped out the brake pads on my Chevy and got some bad vibrations a few days later. Luckily, I found the problem and it was an easy fix.

    It was either my carelessness or somebody was interrupted trying to steal my wheels, which wouldn’t have been a huge surprise in my old neighborhood.

  3. I use torque sticks from china freight tools and tighten everything up with an electric impact. Roll the vehicle and retighten for OCD.

    Snugging the lugs up and not to torque is the surest way to forget so I stopped doing that a long time ago.

    Used to drive me nuts trying to remember/untightening when its on the ground/can’t torque it when the wheels in the air with a click style wrench.

    Do yourself a favor Eric and get torque limiting extensions and a 1/2″ drive electric torque wrench (no compressor to start up when you want to use it, and the battery is surprisingly good, charges in 20 minutes if you haven’t charged it for over a month)

  4. TPMS is like an “idiot” light…useful for giving early warning of a problem. Not to be relied upon for routine maintenance. Get a decent dial-type tire pressure gage, and use it monthly.

  5. Many years ago I was driving down US 30 and saw up front in the distance something black going up and down, up and down. I thought at first it was a large bird but a few seconds later saw it was a wheel with a tire on it and was bouncing along the highway opposing the direction of traffic. Thankfully it did not hit my windshield but just bounced right over my car and kept going. As I wondered where that thing came from, I saw a woman on the opposite side with no wheel on her driver side front.

  6. Recently I had my tires rotated at a local chain tire and lube joint, i usually do it myself, but for several reasons it wasnt worth the my time as it cost $20 to have done. The shop to my surprise did and said three things. Hey your truck only has 4,800 miles tires arent due to rotate. No, i said i use mobil 1 oil, change the oil at 10k, and rotate every 5k, its all highway miles. Hey, you might want to buy after-market lug nuts, these Ram nuts tend to swell and fail. Yep, im aware Ford also, thanks. Then the mechanic called for a torque buddy. What? Two-person check on lug nuts and factory torque, for a chain i was impressed. Maybe $20 a rotation isnt worth my time anymore.

    I had my lug nuts come loose on a 1972 VW bus in 1989 while in high school. It was sabotage from my girls ex-boyfriend. I felt a lot of vibration and pulled over, good thing it was the drivers side front he loosed. Then he shot my headlights out a few nights later and tried to torch my bus, needless to say, we danced and he got the worst of it, and i got the girl.

  7. Always check things after getting any service on your vehicle.
    I find stupid mistakes 75% of the time for everything from oil changes to dealer service. Some of those mistakes would be machine killers if not found and fixed.

  8. Wow, I’m surprised that your lower control arm, brake rotor, and front bumper trim didn’t sustain damage. Lucky!

    Don’t forget to consider the OPPOSITE of your problem, though — when a wheel WON’T come off because it’s rusted to the hub. That can be a nightmare if you have a flat! It’s important to rotate your tires, check your brakes, AND grind any rust off the hubs with a Dremel and schlob ’em up with never-seize, so if you ever need to take ’em off on the side of the highway — you CAN…

    • A stuck wheel to the hub just needs to have the lug nuts loosened some and drive the car a ways, the wheel will release from the hub. A trick of the trade, Joe the mechanic taught me that.

      • Can’t do that if it’s flat!

        And I’ve had some that are rusted on so bad that even that trick didn’t work. Took heat, PB Blaster, a sledgehammer, a wood block and a LOT of curse words to get them off!

        • I have done it with flat/blown out tires. As long as they turn. Easy and quick. I have never had one as bad as you describe.

        • True enough, the flat tire wheel was impossible to remove. The driver of another pickup stopped to assist me.

          He had a three pound maul to pound the stuck wheel loose from the hub, rear tire. You do something new every day. Do it from the inside of the wheel.

          The face of the tire was ruined. Have to replace the tire.

  9. I always bought used and cars of that era always had the TPMS light on because it always broke. So I use a regular gauge. Mandating it means manufacturers cheap out on it and it won’t last. The same thing is going to happen to the driver impairment systems when they roll out but it won’t be so easy as ignoring it when it doesn’t let you go anywhere because it thinks you’re drunk.

  10. This can be a problem with aluminum rims. Even if properly torqued, it is not unusual for them to get loose.

    Aluminum rims in particular, and all rims for that matter, should be re-torqued within 100 miles of installation and rechecked again if they were found to be a bit loose.

  11. At tire shops you have to tell them how many pounds feet to torque the wheel nuts…they don’t care and won’t look it up….

    they should also be re torqued 100 miles after the wheel being remounted….

    If you own a car you should own a torque wrench….

  12. All the points made in the article about TPMS are valid but I have to say it’s saved me a ton of hassle and maybe kept me safe on two occasions when I ran something over on the highway and said to myself “That didn’t feel right” Sure enough got the pressures up on the driver info screen and sure as s losing pressure quick on a tire. The 1st time it happened it allowed me just enough time to exit the freeway just before a 5 mile construction zone with 2 lanes and no shoulder. Would of been suicidal to change a tire in that situation Instead I did it in the Chick Fila parking lost safe and sound. lol But having said all that, if it were a choice, and say a 1000 dollar option I’d probably opt out! lol

    • TPMS is convenient, but it shouldn’t be mandated. Aftermarket TPMS systems will run you like $200 for a good one if you install it on an older car.

      I’m shopping around for a new sports car, since I’m firmly in my mid life crisis (though I’m well past mid life, go figure), and I encountered a car which uses the Pirelli Cybertire, which is a tire with a pressure and temperature sensor attached to the tire itself. It uses a different signal than TPMS, so you can’t run this car without these Cybertires and if you do, it limits power and speed, ridiculous. TPMS is now ubiquitous and relatively cheap, so I guess some people need to find a new proprietary and more profitable system. If you search for tires online, the Pirelli cybertires with these sensors cost twice what the same tire costs without one.

    • I tend to be a fan also. ‘Course it’s another thing to maintain as it ages. The Jeep is easy to pull up, one touch on a steering wheel button pops up easy to read. Got the light last fall, pull up the screen one tire at 22 lbs, oops! Found a screw in the tread & since I hadn’t driven on it was a safe repair at the tire shop.

    • In the town where I grew up the firestone tire store was in a former Fire Department station.

      Never driven on em.

  13. Coworkers wife calls, all excited as she relates how she changed out a flat tire for the spare, all by herself! He hangs up, relates the story, we’re all pretty impressed.

    Next day, the rest of the story. Steel wheel, tapered on one end lug nuts – she put all five on backwards and drove around the rest of the day. Ruined the wheel and the hub studs.

  14. Hey even the factory forgets the the lug nut torque. Car dealer rental outlet I worked for had quite a few 73 Novas. Back then cars had wheel covers over the steel wheels which totally covered the lug nuts. We had an errant Nova with a weird clunk in the rear. “OK Sparkey take that thing to the dealer”. 15 mile drive, on the freeway, drove OK not great. Hit the exit, one more mile to go. The left rear wheel fell off literally 10 feet from the dealer service entrance. I shudder to think about what might have been 10 miles earlier.

  15. OT but FYI: Here in coastal NC, at 10 AM on a Tuesday, my wife was stopped by brown shirted SHP (State Highway Patrol?) at a checkpoint in the local highway about 5 miles from home. Officers asked for license and registration. When asked why, they responded that those were “required items to legally drive on the roads in NC.” They scanned her license and said they knew without even looking at the paper registration it was valid through year end. She was then free to leave.

    Now this is speculation based on observation, but it appeared that equipment was set up to confiscate (tow away) unregistered vehicles. Due to the type of vehicles being stopped, the checkpoint seemed targeted at box trucks and “work” vehicles like our plain vanilla Transit Connect (not currently a work vehicle, though). One particular box truck ahead of her appeared to be in the process of being towed away.

    Oh, and subsequent to this episode, all the electronic idiot light displays that occur due to electronic interference went haywire for a time. Being 10 years old, my van doesn’t seem to “accept” all the “interferences” and scanning modern spy tech can dish out.

    • They might have confiscated vehicles severely out of date, like several years, but in most cases probably just issued a citation, with a stiff fine coming, for failure to register and pay the fees.

      But be assured that, since in most states, it becomes a misdemeanor rather than just an infraction after some 120 to 180 days, they can arrest the driver and do an “inventory” search of the vehicle. Maybe they “find” a joint or a vial of “rock”, and then it gets ramped up to a drugged DUI and or possession or even “dealing” charge. Even if no seizure is the vehicle results, you’d still have to pay outrageous fees to get it out of the impound lot, and don’t kid yourself that some of that isn’t kicked back to the cops.

  16. Here’s a stupid event: Years ago, I owned a ’73 GTO, installed both radials and bias-ply tires. On a two lane road at night, GTO went all haywire, all over the place, fortunately no oncoming traffic. Scary! FAFO. Play stupid games win stupid prizes.

  17. One of my friends who is a politically active libertarian has had the lug nuts on her car loosened more than once by someone who, obviously, feels threatened she was running for office.

    I drive as a courier for a living now, and several of the company cars have those tire pressure idiot lights on and won’t go off, even when the tire pressures are correct. So, yes, I ignore them. From experience.

    Driving a newer car has reminded me just how much I love my 21 year old car with fewer mandated idiot lights and lock-outs. I am not buying a new car until after the Revolution.

  18. “That these tire pressure monitors are often not reliable – the indicated pressure is often not the actual pressure – and for that reason many people just ignore the warning light when it comes on (and drive around on under-inflated tires) doesn’t seem to matter much to the mandators.”

    Sadly I’ve learned twice that TPS monitors ARE accurate.

    When you have a puncture. 🤦‍♂️

    Had a tire blow out on our Mazda, steered the car to the shoulder, and put the donut spare on. Last fall we were driving when a low pressure warning appeared on the Challenger. Pulled over to find a screw stuck through the tire. 🙄 Called a tire store, they had the tires in stock, placed two new tires on the front end and after a nice long lunch and nearly $500 for tires and labor were on the road again.

    Of course, no one tells you what to do when the TPS and valve stem break free from the wheel. 🤦‍♂️ (donut spare to the rescue again) BTW, it instantly flattens the tire.

    As for “You picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel”, I’ll echo others and say you’re lucky. Many years ago I was driving to the train station to commute to work and saw a wheel and tire bouncing along the side of the road on the oncoming traffic side. Just as I said “That’s odd” I saw a FWD Chevrolet Monte Carlo on three wheels trying to get off the road with a shower of sparks coming off the lower front suspension where the wheel came off of.

  19. Sabotage is a real issue- I had a dude at a girlfriend’s apartment complex who hated my old army truck back in 2010. I would come out to spit, snot, eventually keying on it. One day, all lug nuts were the same amount of loose, and I drove that way for 8 miles. It was a snow storm and the roads were not plowed, so any noise was deadened. The truck has a giant manual hub though that saved me and held the truck weight. If it was studs alone, they would have come off. In any case, all studs were worn half through. Unfortunately, I never found out who did it. By the time I was going to bait and camp it, she moved out of that place.

  20. When I have tires replaced or rotated I always loosen and then retorque all the lug nuts. Many times the nuts are so tight it takes a “every back muscle I have” pulling upward on a breaker bar to loosen them. Even at the best tire stores there might be a guy who thinks “One impact wrench setting fits all.” At least until a competent manager catches him. Could be bad on the rotors and wheels, but certainly would be bad if I had a flat on a back road someplace and had to make a change without all my tools within reach.

    • Absolutely ARYLIOA, as soon as I get back in my driveway after having new tires the first thing I do is loosen the lug nuts and retighten them properly. Almost always need a breaker bar because the guy at the tire shop put them on way too tight.

  21. Takes a brave and honest man to admit to such a mistake so that others may learn from it. Especially someone that makes a living writing about cars, safety, etc.

    Respect!

    Now if only the rest of your profession could learn from your example. I won’t hold my breath waiting. LOL.

        • I’m glad I’m not the only car guy to do this.

          Mine was the left rear on an old F250 years ago when I couldn’t blame old age. Somewhere in LA on I10 in the middle of the night. The rear got a bit squirrely. As I pulled over the wheel came off and passed me with a light show of sparks from the drum backing plate.

          Played tracker and found where the tire had laid down the grass in the median. Followed that until I found the wheel just shy of the oncoming fast lane. Two lugs from the other three corners got us the rest of the way to Florida. Funny thing is it came off moments after realizing the spare was at home.

          • Hi Ross,

            I suppose the odds eventually catch up, eh? I still can’t believe I let this happen. But I got off lucky. No damage to anyone or even the truck. I do need a new wheel though…

  22. Narrowly avoided disaster when I went to pick up a boat from my brother in Idaho to bring back to Washington. I asked my Bro when was the last time the bearings had been serviced on the boat trailer….never. I made arrangements to have them serviced Idaho before I left. They came apart into tiny pieces in the mechanic’s hands. Mechanic asked how did you even get it down to the shop? Bearings replaced and trailer is good as new.

  23. It’s also prudent to check the pressure / lugs on a trailer.

    I had an almost-accident years ago before going to an antique engine show. For whatever reason, the little voice said “check the lugs” on an 18′ equipment trailer. Thank God I listened to the little voice as most of ’em were loose. Guessing the torque of six big flywheels rocking the trailer (even tho I put jack stands on all four corners) loosened ’em over time.

  24. Eric, good to hear both you and the truck are OK. I remove the lug nuts with an impact wrench but only use the impact to spin the nut up to the rim then I hand tighten them and I drive the car for a few days then I check them again. Never had a problem. A shot of oil on the studs ensures they come off again when I rotate the tires instead of snapping the studs.

    For those of you that have cable suspended spare tires I would recommend checking the cable as I’ve seen those things break and drop the wheel/ tire when moving.

  25. Glad everyone is OK. Stuff happens and being diligent pays off. (some call it OCD, I call it being detail oriented).

    It’s amazing what happens on the road. Since I looked into getting a dash cam I now get tons of videos showing the idiots and SHTF moments from all over the world. Simply amazing.

    BTW, any recommendations on a dash cam?

    • I bought a VanTrue 3 years ago. Front and back cameras from the front window suctioned on unit. GPS, speed, and a selection of settings. This was 3 years ago, so there may be better, but I don’t know.

      Here’s the incident I experienced and posted to my YouTube channel. It’s 62 seconds long long, with the incident at about 41 seconds. Thankfully my reflexes are good.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q0-vF01-us

  26. ‘the left front wheel dropped off – and bounced off down the road’ — eric

    AAAIIIIEEE!!!! You are incredibly lucky, both that the truck wasn’t destroyed, and also that the flying wheel didn’t kill somebody. Recently someone told me about attending a drag race where a wheel came off midway, bounced a couple of hundred yards down the track, and massacred a woman in the stands at the finish line.

    Others are less lucky — and it’s their own damned fault. I’m talkin’ about FOOLS who bought fake and gay EeeVee pickups at a huge premium, at the apex of EeeVee Fever in early 2022. Now they’ve seen 50 percent price declines, according to this analysis of Bring a Trailer data:

    https://www.zerohedge.com/markets/early-adopters-ev-trucks-hammered-price-plunge

    As ol’ Jim Morrison’s incantation went, ‘WAIT — there’s been a slaughter here!

  27. I saw the same thing on Sunday, a car’s wheel was careening down a four-lane road in my direction. It was headed straight for my truck, another driver used the front of their car to re-direct the wheel and tire to the opposite direction.

    A quarter of a mile away, an SUV was in the turning lane with the driver’s side front wheel hub on the asphalt.

    Sometimes, things go wrong.

    I had a 1976 Chevrolet pickup, the control arm on the passenger’s side was damaged, all of a sudden, it broke in two and you are stranded.

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