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The Missing Auto Part That’s Stranding Drivers

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Knowing how to change a flat tire may not save you from a big bill for roadside assistance these days.

Spare tires are no longer standard equipment on many new cars, according to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, as manufacturers look for ways to cut costs and boost fuel efficiency. Data from Edmunds.com indicates that 38% fewer cars have full-size spares than did five years ago, and most of those that still do are trucks and large SUVs.

Instead, many manufacturers are offering flat-fixing kits or subbing in so-called run-flat tires, which are reinforced in a way that allows you to continue driving on them for short distances, hopefully long enough to make it to a mechanic. If your car does come with a spare, it’s probably a temporary donut. None of those options is a great solution for drivers in trouble, says the LA Times, especially if the tire damage amounts to more than a minor puncture.

“When you purchase a vehicle, it’s important to be aware of this trend,” says Christie Hyde, a spokeswoman for AAA, which saw a 10% drop in the number of flat-tire assistance calls last year. Dealerships and private owners aren’t necessarily going to tell you there’s no spare, and it’s important to have a back-up plan of some kind to avoid roadside panic hunting for a nonexistent spare and the average fee of $76 (per national database towPartners) for a five-mile tow.

Manufacturers often include free roadside assistance, and it’s occasionally a free perk of carrying a high-end credit card. AAA Basic, which costs $58 per year, offers up to four three-mile tows free of charge. If you’re covered by either, protection may be as simple as having the right toll-free number saved into the contacts on your phone. Free phone apps like towSearch also help drivers find towing companies near them – and may offer a 10% discount.

The no-spare trend could also lead to higher costs when you buy replacement tires, Hyde says. The more durable run-flat tires can cost $50 extra apiece — or more — adding substantially to your bill.

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