Rest assured. My friend recently replaced the two worn tires on his Dodge Caravan, and he assures me that he will replace the other two before the first snowflake arrives this coming winter season.
That means he'll be able to get his tires rotated at any tire dealership.
If you'll recall, I wrote a piece about this space back in April, detailing my friend's dilemma. He had visited several tire and auto service dealers, and all of them had refused to rotate his tires, since the tires with better tread were on the back of the vehicle.
As I wrote earlier, my friend wasn't happy. The Caravan was difficult to maneuver during late winter, when he had difficulty driving in wet, snowy conditions. He couldn't understand why a dealer wouldn't do as he had instructed and rotate the tires, no matter how much better the tread was on the back tires.
I posed the question to you, dear readers. And you didn't disappoint.
Thanks to all of you for taking the time to email, write or call me with your thoughts about the situation. Your words were very enlightening.
The majority of you confirmed what tire dealers told my friend: The industry considers it unsafe to put tires with less tread depth on the rear axle of a vehicle.
"While they could have, and maybe should have, rotated the tires 'side-to-side,' moving worn front tires to the rear is a big mistake," wrote Robert A. Stewart II, CEO of Paragon Luxury Wheels in Greensboro, N.C. "There's a highly mistaken public view (especially on front-wheel-drive vehicles) that your best traction tires should be on the front."
Scott Roberson, tire program director for Xpress Partners L.L.C., wrote that my friend's dilemma is a daily battle in tire shops everywhere. He said consumers have been misinformed for years, and it is our job as tire professionals to educate them on the safest way of tire replacement.
"Here is the scenario we try to give our clients: New tires grip the road better, and if two new tires are placed on the front of a front-wheel drive with worn tires on the rear, this will create an oversteer," Mr. Roberson wrote. "Especially on wet roads, going around a curve or making a sudden lane change, the front of the vehicle will grip, and the rear of the vehicle will lose control.
"If this is reversed with the new tires on the rear in the same situation, the front will want to lose control, but the driver can still steer the front, and the rear of the vehicle will stay planted on the road and not lose control."
Adverse weather conditions play a big part in putting the better tires on the rear, according to Mike Waal, a retired 43-year tire and rubber industry veteran who said he has held technical, sales, sales training and sales management positions.
"The logic behind keeping the tires with the most tread on the back is that of control, the most traction," Mr. Waal wrote. "The tires with the least tread, and therefore the least traction, (should go) on the front, which are then 'controlled' by the steering. Albeit, there is no 'steering control' (except for those few vehicles with all-wheel-steer) for the rear tires.
"If the tires with the least tread depth, and therefore the least traction, were mounted on the rear, there would be the tendency for those tires to break loose for lack of proper grip in adverse weather conditions, (causing) an instantaneous oversteer condition that most drivers are not well-equipped to handle."
Weather plays role
Jessica Yount Johnson, manager of Marc Yount's Tire Pros in Evans, Ga., agreed that this dilemma is common. While customers don't deal with snow in her region, she said, rain is fairly abundant.
"Our customer's safety is a top priority, so if by rotating their tires we put them in danger, we won't do it," Ms. Johnson said. "We try to be very diligent in explaining how tires handle wet weather, and why we shouldn't move the tires. This generally is an issue as a set of tires nears the end of its tread life, or if tires have been previously replaced in a pair of two."
Joe Fiacco of Fiacco's Tires & Batteries of Newport, N.Y., operates a small shop in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in central New York, where snow is a way of life in the winter. He said he refuses frequent customer requests to rotate the better tires to the front, citing the danger it causes as well as potential lawsuits.
"We encourage people to rotate their tires," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're in the snowbelt — the newer tires go on the back."
Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association (TIA), cited preventing oversteer as the reason for keeping better tires on the rear axle. He pointed out that TIA has an educational safety video on YouTube that illustrates the point.
"I have actually tested this myself, and when the front tires have less tread depth, you will feel the vehicle start to lose control before it actually starts hydroplaning," Mr. Rohlwing said. "When the better tires are on the front, the rear of the vehicle just breaks free without any warning."
Mr. Stewart said manufacturers' data prove that since better tires are less susceptible to damage, it is safer to use them on the rear of the vehicle in the event of a puncture or sudden blowout, "where you have direct control of vehicle via the steering wheel and throttle, vs. a rear tire.
"On a rear tire, everything you do is reactionary," Mr. Stewart wrote. He cited auto racing as an example: "front blowout = driver controls vehicle, slows down, gets to pit, changes tire, continues racing. Rear blowout = car usually spins, resulting in an accident."
Jim Hawkes from T&T Tire in Kelso, Wash., gave a "resounding yes" when responding to the question about whether the dealers were correct to refuse to rotate the tires.
"Michelin and other manufacturer studies show that by having a much better tire on the front off a front-wheel-drive vehicle, you exponentially decrease traction in the rear," Mr. Hawkes said. "This may cause a spinout type of situation." He said it was the same reason for "not putting two studded snow tires on the front."
Roger Hall, service manager of family-owned Reeves Wheel Alignment in Owosso, Mich., shared a photo of a mangled vehicle to illustrate the effects of what could happen with the better set of tires are on the front axle.
"I truly believe this could have been avoided with the installation of all four snows or a minimum of two good tires on the rear," Mr. Hall wrote.
Ms. Johnson said when customers insist on rotating tires against the advice of her team at Marc Yount's Tire Pros, they try to ascertain the reasons.
"Some are aware of the traction issue and feel confident in their ability to maintain control of the vehicle were the rear end to break loose," she wrote. "Occasionally, we are chasing driveability or handling issues, and we want to test different tires on different axles.
"Once in a while, someone is just set in their ways, and 40 years ago his grandpa told him he needed the best tires on the front."
Ms. Johnson said her dealership uses industry resources from Michelin and the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) to illustrate their point.
"Typically, we find that our customers trust us when it comes to industry standards and will accept our company policy," she wrote. "Sometimes, we do have people question our policy because we do offer free rotations on every tire we sell — and most we don't — or because they've been burned elsewhere, and trust is sometimes hard to come by in our industry."
Marc Yount's Tire Pros has refused to rotate tires, according to Ms. Johnson, if the team felt the rotation would compromise a customer's safety. "As an independent dealer, we do our best to evaluate each vehicle as an individual case and educate our customers."
Others who responded to the column, however, said it is safer to put the better tires on the front of the car, as long as the car is front-wheel drive. My friend's vehicle is front-wheel drive.
Jacques Bajer, a longtime engineer from Group Michelin who operates Tire Systems Engineering Inc. in Grosse Point, Mich., agreed with the dealer who wouldn't rotate the tires, "assuming the vehicle is rear-wheel drive.
"Keep the better treads on the rear," Mr. Bajer wrote, asserting that the type of propulsion system on a vehicle is most important. "If it is a front-wheel drive vehicle, move the better tires to the front. For four-wheel drive, it doesn't matter. Electric vehicles are a special case."
Another tire service veteran, Curt Wells of Jerry's Tire in Michigan, said that the decision is a no-brainer.
"We always rotate for better wear, but on this vehicle or on any FWD car, the best tires in my book would be to have on the front," Mr. Wells said. "Engine weight, steer ability, traction all come into play on the FWD car. Of course I've only been in the tire business 50 years now...."
John Jindra Jr. of Quality Tire Service in Johnsburg, Ill., agreed.
"I have gone round and round over this same topic with many people in our industry," Mr. Jindra wrote. "I'm from the old school — put the best tires on front of the vehicle. All the studies I have seen and have been presented about tire rotations about how a vehicle handles with bad tires on the back still hasn't changed my mind.
"I still prefer to have the best tires on front for stopping, steering and traction because of vehicles coming out with front-wheel drive and the balance they have for ride and traction," Mr. Jindra continued.
"All the weight is over the front tires. Hit the brakes hard (and) the weight comes off the back. How are light tires going to do any stopping or turning? I don't know many drivers out there who can handle an over steering vehicle vs. an under steering vehicle."
He asserted that most people will just keep the brake pedal to the floor and let it slide with bad tires on the front and the good ones on the rear. At least with the better tires on the front, it will give them a chance, he said.
"When somebody only has the money for two (tires), that's what I sell them, and they're going on the front."
Another veteran of the tire industry, Kevin Hogan, retired after 40 years at K.O. Tire in Elk Grove Village, Ill., said he, too, would have rotated my friend's tires.
"I would give the customer what he wants — rotate his tires — seeing we never, ever had an issue or a complaint with hydroplaning or over steering by putting the best tires on the front of a front-wheel-drive vehicle, regardless of Michelin's testing or article years ago about over-steering or hydroplaning."
Mr. Hogan said he wouldn't do it if the rear tires are scalloped in a way that would cause vibration, nor would he rotate them on a rear-wheel drive vehicle.
"I've always believed in keeping the best tires on the drive wheels for traction... and we never had a problem," he said. "... Let's say the customer lives in a hilly area with this FWD vehicle (Caravan), or any FWD vehicle.... How in the hell can he get up the hill with no or shallow tread on his drive wheels, seeing he can't afford or doesn't want to purchase new tires at the moment?"
Greg Kitchens, owner of Lakeside Tire in Wirtz, Va., also would have rotated the tires.
"We all agree that rotation of tires helps even out tire wear," Mr. Kitchens wrote. "Generally the drive-axle tires wear more quickly. In your friend's case, for winter driving, his best traction tires should be on the front. Therefore, assuming the tires were in good shape, I would have rotated them and balanced the ones going to the front.
"The only time I wouldn't rotate the tires is when at least one tire is bad and should be replaced," he said. "I don't touch dangerous tires."
Sheldon Horst of Horst Tire Service in New Waterford, Ohio, said he would rotate them if a customer requests that.
"If we don't, they will either do it themselves, which is what they hate to do, or take it somewhere else and most likely not be back again," Mr. Horst wrote. "I feel that if the lower tread-depth tires still have at least 40 percent tread left, then they should still perform OK on the back. After all, the front tires are going to wear down faster, and soon the difference won't be as noticeable."
He said some shops try "to make the customer feel as if their vehicle is unsafe and that the only solution is to put a set of new tires on, which is not being completely honest."
Inflation is key
Proper tire rotation is the key, wrote many respondents.
"If after 8,000 miles of service on whatever vehicle involved, the tire treads are wearing smoothly and evenly, and the vehicle does not pull or shake, you may leave well enough alone," Mr. Bajer wrote, "keeping in mind that you are not dealing with an ideal system, and that conditions vary from one vehicle to another, and that our roads are far from being ideal."
Mr. Bajer said consumers may elect to move the front tires to the rear and vice-versa, "but do not criss-cross assemblies. Make sure to evaluate the vehicle for smooth road shake and pull, using the same stretch of road, and taking into consideration wind and other atmospheric conditions."
Mr. Roberson said it is imperative that tires are rotated every 5,000-7,000 miles to ensure they wear evenly and consumers are not placed in a situation such as my friend.
"It is an industry standard that if there is more than 2/32(nds inch) difference between the front and rear tires, they should not be rotated if the deepest tread is on the rear of the vehicle, and just the opposite if the front tires have the deeper tread, they should be rotated," Mr. Roberson wrote.
"When a consumer is purchasing only two tires, they should always place the newer tires on the rear of the vehicle. Although, it is acceptable to place two new tires on the front of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle."
Mr. Roberson said the dealers were correct in not rotating the tires "and should have educated him on why they made this recommendation. When he does decide to purchase two more tires, he should move the rear tires to the front and place the new tires on the rear."
Thanks again to all who took the time to respond and debate the issue.
Gotta go. Time to rotate my tires.