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Tire pressure warning light mystifies drivers

Car TiresVehiclesFuel-efficient VehiclesTire Pressure ChecksU.S. Department of EnergyU.S. Congress

Driving a car with under-inflated tires is a serious safety issue. 

While 96 percent of American motorists agree, a new national survey finds that nearly half of the nation's drivers still can’t identify the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) warning symbol.

The yellow warning symbol of a tire cutaway looks like a bag holding an exclamation point. The symbol holds more weight than that.

Under-inflated tires can compromise high-speed cornering, sudden evasive maneuvers and even basic control of the car. 

Tires get hot as you drive. The heat comes from friction created as the tire constantly flexes. You can replicate the effect by repeatedly stretching a stout rubber band; it warms up quickly. Under-inflated tires aren't as firm, so the additional flexing stresses and weakens them, leading to heat damage that causes tread separation.

In 2000, following a series of fatal automobile crashes and a resulting nationwide tire recall, the United States Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The law mandates that all new passenger cars, multi-purpose passenger vehicles and light trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or less be equipped with a low tire pressure warning system.

While estimates show more than 104 million vehicles in the U.S. are equipped with TPMS, only 58 percent of drivers could properly identify the lifesaving TPMS warning symbol.

Such a notable disconnect between what drivers consider crucial to their driving safety and their inability to recognize the important tire pressure warning symbol has provoked industry players ranging from TPMS suppliers to the federal government to further educate motorists on the importance of TPMS.

“[Safety] begins with consumer education around how to recognize and what to do in a low tire pressure situation,” said Hugh Charvat, president and CEO of Schrader International, which had commissioned the survey on TPMS recognition.

A global manufacturer of sensing and valve solutions, Schrader is working with its aftermarket retail partners to use point-of-sale elements such as product displays, waiting room posters, consumer-focused videos and handouts.

Numerous states are also getting involved. In 2010, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) implemented a mandatory pressure check with any vehicle service performed, and several states now include a properly functioning TPMS system as part of their periodic vehicle safety inspections.

Automobile manufacturers have also stepped up their marketing efforts in order to highlight new features available with "direct" TPMS, such as advanced pressure-by-position displays and tire fill alerts (horn chirp and/or lights flash when tires are filled to proper pressure).

Direct systems have sensors and transponders inside each wheel. Indirect systems rely on the anti-lock brake system (ABS) sensors to detect a wheel rotating at a different speed than the others thus having lower air pressure.

When the TPMS warning symbol appears, it means one or more tires are at least 25 percent lower than specified and the driver should take notice and then proceed to the nearest service facility, tire store or gas station to air up.

All vehicles model year 2008 and later are equipped with TPMS technology.

Not only are properly inflated tires safer, but they're more fuel efficient by 3.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Car TiresVehiclesFuel-efficient VehiclesTire Pressure ChecksU.S. Department of EnergyU.S. Congress
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