Tire debris can be a minor hassle or a major hazard. Dealing with tire debris promptly can prevent blowouts and hassles down the road.
There are two kinds of tire debris: debris in tires and debris made of tires. Nails and rocks are common in tires, and chunks of steel from blown-out radial tires are often found on the road. Both are road hazards and can damage your car.
In this article, we'll cover the two major types of tire debris. We'll go over the most common debris found in the tread of tires, what kind of debris is damaging, and what you can ignore. We'll also go over the most common blown-out tire parts found on the road and why pieces of tires should be avoided on the highway.
We sourced the information in this article from experienced wheel and tire technicians and from the online automotive community.
Types of Tire Debris
There are a few different kinds of tire debris, and we can sort them into two primary categories: debris that affects tires and debris that are made of tires. Debris that affects tires include rocks, nails, and other items that get stuck in or damaged tires.
Debris made of tires includes shredded rubber and radial bands from blowouts, along with tire tracks and tiny rubber particles that shed from your tires every time you drive them.
Debris Inside of Tires
Debris can get inside of tires in a number of ways. The first and most common is debris put in the tire by the installer. Items such as balancing beads may appear to be foreign debris, but they've been added to the tire intentionally as an alternative to wheel weights. Balancing beads are most common on large tires, such as tractor-trailers and bus tires.
Other kinds of debris are added to tires by accident. Occasionally, shop technicians find everything from wheel weights to sockets inside of tires. There are a number of ways such items can entire a tire. Most often, these items probably fell into the tire when it was being stored or moved around the shop.
Occasionally, a tire pressure monitoring sensor may be broken off during installation. If this is the case, it could rattle around and set your wheel out of balance. Other times, an old valve stem or debris from the wheel could make it into the tire. Mud and rocks are often found inside of tires, as they've knocked off the wheel during installation.
Debris Stuck in Tire Tread
Tire tread is notorious for picking up strange debris. After all, you drive tens of thousands of miles on your tires—you're bound to run into something eventually. Cars that drive primarily on pavement pick up all sorts of junk from the road, including everything from nails to jewelry. Here are a few common items that shop techs sometimes pluck out of tire tread.
- Cigarette butts
- Chewing gum
- Broken glass
- Bolts and nuts
- Industrial staples
- Chunks of asphalt
- Metal debris
- Chain links
- Broken plastic
- Wood splinters
The deeper the tire tread, the greater propensity it has to pick up and hold onto debris. Some of these common items are less injurious than others, but the most common—nails—are responsible for a huge percentage of flat tires.
What Kind of Tire Debris is Dangerous?
Some kinds of tire debris are relatively innocuous and simply a nuisance at worst. However, other kinds of debris will almost certainly cause problems down the line. The most obvious culprit is the good old-fashioned construction nail. Everybody grits their teeth when driving through a construction zone because there are bound to be hundreds of sharp metal nails strewn along the pavement.
Nails in boards are a much bigger hazard, as boards prop up the nails into perfect tire puncture position. Some nails are partially removed from aboard and recessed, only to expose themselves after you run over the plank. That's why it's best to always avoid chunks of wood on the ground, especially near an active construction or demolition project.
Another common culprit is the roofing nail. Older buildings often use short, fat-headed nails for securing slats and shingles to the roof. These short nails are almost perfectly designed to lay point-up on the ground and puncture your tires. Other common sharp intruders include nail gun nails, which are shorter, thicker, and stronger than typical construction or trim nails.
Other kinds of tire debris, such as wood, can also be hazardous. Driving too close to a fallen tree or pile of wood can tear your sidewall, and running it over can vault a piece of wood up into your engine bay or suspension. Never drive over piles of any loose material like wood.
Glass can be hazardous to your tires, but radial tires have effectively eliminated the risk of a tread puncture from softer materials. A bigger hazard is to the edge of your tire or the sidewall, which a large chunk of glass can easily penetrate. Ceramic, which is stronger than glass, can do a number on a tire too.
Tire Debris That Causes Vibration
Your chances of encountering less-dangerous tire debris are high. Some items, which tires love to pick up and hold, can cause annoying issues such as vibration as they throw your wheel out of balance. Steel ball bearings, rocks, and chunks of metal, each weighing less than an ounce, can cause a surprisingly noticeable difference in your ride quality and may even cause your tires to wear unevenly.
One of the most common causes of severe vibration is mud. Mud has a tendency to cake up on the inside of your wheel, where it stays and throws the wheel severely out of balance. A tire with a large amount of debris can do the same, especially if it's concentrated to one side.
What Kind of Tires Get the Most Debris?
Different tires have varying levels of susceptibility to road debris. Slick performance tires and summer tires are the most likely to be damaged by debris but also the least likely to pick up debris in their tread. All-season tires are somewhere in the middle, but they tend to pick up lots of rocks due to their deeper tread voids.
Winter tires are notorious for picking up debris. They have lots of tread voids, and they're more likely to drive on surfaces covered with rocks, mud, and other wash-out that occurs in cold and slushy environments.
Mud tires track the most debris around, as their huge tread voids are designed to get packed with mud. Once off-road drivers re-enter the roadway, their tires fling pounds of mud all over the place and sometimes leave trails that stretch for miles. Mud contains rocks, sticks, and other materials that can easily foul up other tires.
Despite the fact that off-road tires spread a lot of debris around, they're also the easiest to clean. The tread gaps are so wide that nothing can really get stuck or compacted into them. This is convenient for drivers, as their tires won't often be thrown out of balance or damaged by running over small rocks and other items like nails or metal parts.
Hitting Debris on the Highway
One of the leading causes of tire blowouts is hitting a piece of debris on the highway. Even a small and seemingly innocuous item—like a dustpan or a 2x4–can cause extensive damage to your tires at high speeds.
Always avoid hitting highway debris if possible. It goes without saying that large items (such as mattresses or ladders) should be avoided, but even smaller items like glass bottles and garbage should too. Never run over a bag on the highway, as you have no way to know what's inside.
Sometimes, you can't evade a piece of debris on the highway. If this situation occurs, let off the throttle and try to keep the wheels straight. This will put you in a good position to recover if one of your tires blows out after hitting debris on the road.
How to Remove Tire Debris
You should try to remove any large tire debris somewhat regularly, such as when you wash your car. The fastest way to remove tire debris is to use a pressure washer. Use care when operating it, as the spray is powerful and can bounce back at you. Spray debris at an angle, which will force them to roll out of the tread.
Stubborn debris may require manual intervention. Use a plastic tire tool to pry out rocks and other debris, or use a screwdriver with care. A ballpoint pen is also a great way to remove tire debris without risking damage to the tread.
Nails in Tires
What if you notice a nail in your tire? It happens all the time, and the severity varies widely. If you notice a small nail in a tread block, chances are it'll be fine, and you don't have to do anything. Watch the tire pressure over the following weeks to ensure it doesn't slowly deflate.
If you notice a nail in the sidewall or deep in between the tread, you'll need to have it repaired. A shop will repair it with an inside patch, which is the most reliable way to fix a hole in the tire. Self-repair kits are available, and they utilize a hole-widening tool and a sticky material that expands and tightens in the tire. These are less reliable than inside patches but don't require you to take the tire off the wheel.
Debris From Tires
Tires themselves can leave a significant amount of debris on the highway. Every once in a while, you'll certainly see a rubber ring from a blown-out semi-truck tire or strands of ply sticking out of black rubber chunks. Tire debris themselves can be quite hazardous to drivers, so you should avoid running them over.
The vast majority of car tires made today are radials. Radial tires have one or multiple wide steel bands running along the inner circumference of the tread, which gives the tire strength and rigidity. Tire debris on the road, especially pieces of tread, almost invariably contain all or part of that strong steel band.
This is why utility workers remove tire debris from the roadway as soon as possible. Hitting a radial tire at 70 miles per hour would be like hitting a bag of rocks or a chain-link fence, which is an understandably bad situation.
Smaller chunks of tire debris are probably from the sidewall. This part of the tire contains no steel band, but the rubber itself is quite dense. It's thicker than most people imagine and strong due to its nylon or Kevlar ply reinforcement.
What Debris do Tires Leave on the Road?
Tires leave all sorts of debris on the road. Much of the time, mud on the highway or in a residential neighborhood was tracked in by a truck or SUV with muddy tires. The same is true for rocks, construction debris, oil, and pieces of other tires. Tires debris can cause road damage and even stain your driveway.
Tire marks on the road are a form of tire debris deposited due to heat and friction. On the highway, most tire marks are caused by brakes locking up. Semi-truck brakes lock up fairly often, leaving those tell-tale side-by-side tire marks. In town, tire marks can be caused by locked-up brakes or from burnouts (intentionally spinning the tires).
Sometimes, tire marks aren't caused by the tire itself. Marks are common near paving jobs, where trucks drive on and off of fresh asphalt. This can leave distinct tire tracks that may never fade away, as the tracks are made of the same self-bonding asphalt that the road is. These marks are particularly noticeable in areas where the asphalt meets concrete, such as your driveway or the sidewalk.
About THE AUTHOR
I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.Read More About Charles Redding