Spare skinny aThere are those who believe a space-saver spare tyre is adequate. There are those who believe that when you have run-flat tyres you don’t need a spare. There are even those who believe (and they’re mostly bean counters in the motor industry) that you don’t need any sort of spare at all when a can of sealant, a tyre repair kit and a small pump is so much cheaper. Invariably such people point out that flat tyres are so rare these days that carrying a spare around is a waste of space and fuel.

Think about it. Exactly the same argument could be made for not fitting airbags and seat belts. They are called upon even less than spare tyres. So would you drive around without airbags and seat belts? Would you drive around without insurance? (Actually scratch that last remark, I read recently that about 700,000 optimistic Australians drive around without insurance).

I would never buy a car without a spare, and the only time I’ve bought a car with a space-saver spare I had it replaced with a full-size spare within days. There’s a reason for this and it happened to me in Ceduna, the last big town on the western side of the South Australian coast. I was heading for Perth and driving a Fiat 500 and hit a hole big enough to damage the wall of the tyre.

It was losing air fast so I bolted on the space saver and headed for a servo. Where I was told the tyre had to be replaced and the nearest place with stock of tyres in this unusual size was Adelaide, 800 kilometres away. Heading west, Kalgoorlie was 1400 km. The space saver spare was good for 150 kilometres at a maximum speed of 80 kmh, so if I headed back on that I’d still have 600 kilometres to go when it gave up the ghost. I could get a new tyre either by road freight or air freight, and add in the cost of accommodation while I was waiting.

spares bBut my glass is ever half full. At least it wasn’t a car with run-flat tyres. Run-flats have extremely hard sidewalls and no servo in Ceduna had equipment strong enough to get such a tyre off the rim. Even if I’d had a new run-flat air freighted in, no one in town could have put it on for me. And the damaged run-flat tyre, once again, would only have been good for 150 km at 80 kmh. And replacement run-flats are far from cheap. A tyre-repair kit would have also been useless – if the guy at the servo couldn’t fix the tyre I certainly couldn’t have. And by the way, spraying sealant into a tyre may mean that it can’t be repaired when you get to someone who can assist, so you’ll be up for a new tyre. If the size is in stock.

Hey, it could have been even worse than that. I could have been at the Sandfire Roadhouse, 1900 kilometres from Perth and 2100 kilometres from Darwin, when I needed a new tyre.

At the end of this experience I was far more familiar with Ceduna than most Australians. Well, the parts that can be reached on foot anyway, and I had formed a very definite view on space-saver spares, indeed on economy spare wheels of any persuasion.

Car companies fit space-savers and the various other iterations of economy spare wheels because they save money and weight, and result in a fractional improvement in fuel economy that is only relevant to the various government authorities policing fuel economy and emission standards. And in the great bulk of world markets the car makers get away with it. In most of Europe, America and Asia you can confidently expect to find meaningful help within 150 kilometres. In this wide brown land, not so much.

But could it ever happen to you? Here’s a sobering statistic. Last year around 40,000 Australians needed roadside assist for a flat tyre. I don’t have a figure for Australia but 20 per cent of Americans have no idea how to change a wheel and it’s likely about the same here.

Spares cSo make sure you have a proper spare and you know how to fit it. Check the pressure in it from time to time because there’s nothing worse than bolting on a spare and finding it’s also flat. And there’s one final thing to think about – when you pick up a rental car check the type of spare it has, the pressure in it and the roadside assist provisions in your rental agreement.

Oh, by the way, if you have a car with an economy spare check your insurance policy. There are those that only cover you while you’re on a space saver or a damaged tyre until you reach the nearest point of repair. If you drive past it, say to get home, you’re uninsured.

Published December 2017


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