Tread carefully when dealing with your tires

Q: I saw that there was a bill about low-rolling resistance tires being required in Washington. I didn’t even know that was a thing. It looks like they’re good for gas mileage but maybe not as good for traction. Is it a good move to require tires that might not be as safe?

A: I have a friend who likes to run. And once she found her perfect shoe, she never deviated. When she worried that the shoe might get discontinued, she stocked up on multiple pairs. Maybe some drivers feel the same way about their tires and would be heartbroken to know that the factory-installed BF Goodrich All-Terrains on their Hummer H2 doesn’t make the efficiency cut.

For the rest of us, if that bill had passed (and it didn’t this year) it would likely have minimal impact on our lives. To summarize a four-page bill in one sentence, it would allow the Department of Commerce to set minimum energy efficiency standards for replacement tires based on their rolling resistance and prohibit the sale of tires that do not meet the standards.

It also states that any rules adopted prohibiting the sale of tires “may not adversely affect tire safety or tire longevity.” You might already be driving on low rolling resistance (LRR) tires. They’ve been around since the 1990s but haven’t received much attention until more recently.

If you drive a car with a reputation for efficiency, it probably came from the factory with them. When manufacturers are competing for the best MPG, every little advantage helps. They sometimes put LRR tires on other models as well in an effort to drive up the efficiency of a brand’s fleet. That increase in efficiency saves 1% to 2% in fuel costs (and pollution) compared to non-LRR tires.

For the driver, that probably works out to somewhere between $100 and $250 in savings over the life of the tires, depending on how long they last and the price of gas. But saving dollars at the cost of safety is a bad trade. Your tires are the only part of your car that contacts the road so you’re depending on them to hold in the corners and stop when you hit the brakes.

The good news is that there are plenty of LLR tire options with traction ratings as good as the alternative. In a non-scientific study, 85% of LRR tires had an “A” rating for traction, compared to 87% of non-LRR tires.

Before you rush out and save the world (and your fuel bill) with new efficient tires, take a moment to think about how you’ve maintained your current tires. That includes inflation, alignment and wear. Underinflated tires decrease your fuel efficiency by about .3% for each pound of pressure that you’re short. Low pressure also causes uneven wear and a need to replace tires sooner. Even more important than saving a few pennies per trip on gas, underinflated tires decrease stability and traction, and increase the risk of tire failure. Similarly, tire alignment impacts fuel economy, tire longevity and safety. Worn-out tires don’t ruin your gas mileage, but they’ll let you down in wet conditions.

Tire issues contribute to about 11,000 crashes a year in the US, resulting in over 600 fatalities. You rely on your tires to grip the road, so whatever kind you choose, make sure they’re in proper condition to take care of you when you need them most.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.