Air! Air! Somebody get me some air!

September 17, 2006|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

Oh, you thought it would last forever, didn't you?

You thought every time you pulled into a gas station, you'd be able to drive your car up to the little compressor with the long black hose and put air in your tires, as much as you wanted, and never get charged for it.

Free air - why, it was practically a birthright in this country!

Who would ever charge for air?

Oh, maybe in the dreary old Soviet Union, where you had to wait in line for eight hours just to buy a tomato, or Afghanistan, a country that seems stuck in the Middle Ages, where there are only about 14 cars anyway.

But not here, in the good ol' U-S-of-A.

No, that could never happen. ... Could it?

Actually, as it turns out, the number of gas stations offering free air is dwindling to anemic proportions, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic and its manager of public and government affairs, John B. Townsend II.

In fact, in this era of Tiger Marts and Qwik Marts and Mini-Marts and every other kind of Mart that sells gas in addition to Doritos, Slim Jims and 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew - that sound you heard was the death knell of the full-service filling station - finding an air compressor of any kind can be an adventure.

Townsend, you could say, is a bit of a fanatic on the subject - at least, since finding himself in need of air in the tires of his Oldsmobile Aurora one day two months ago.

Pulling into one gas station after another near his home in Prince George's County, he was shocked to learn that not one offered free air.

Of the 15 or so stations he surveyed, most were charging between 50 and 75 cents for air.

A few were charging as much as a dollar.

Townsend saw it as the most brazen of all rip-offs.

"I went from station to station and got so upset about it," he recalled in a recent phone conversation.

Finally, he stopped at a Sears auto center and a guy working in one of the service bays agreed to fill his tires, with no charge.

Still, the experience left him shaken.

"I remember, when I was a young man, people saying [gas] stations would someday charge for air," Townsend, 55, said. "And it was a contradiction in terms! It was an oxymoron! How could we charge for air!"

When he got home, Townsend began calling gas stations in Baltimore, Prince George's County, Montgomery County, Washington and Northern Virginia to see how many offered free air.

He called 45 in all.

The final tally: Two gas stations offered free air.

And one of those said the offer was good only if the attendant pumped the air, not the motorist.

Now AAA, the national motorist advocacy organization, is concerned that the lack of gas stations offering free air may cause motorists to neglect checking that their tires are properly inflated.

"In fact," said Townsend, in a recent AAA news release, "more than 80 percent of drivers on the roads today do not have the foggiest notion about how to properly check their tire pressure."

Tires inflated to the proper pressure save lives and gas, says Townsend, who then trots out a number of not-so-cheery statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to emphasize how Americans neglect tire safety.

Among them:

One in every three cars has a significantly under-inflated tire.

660 fatalities and 33,000 injuries occur every year because of crashes related to low tire pressure.

9 percent of passenger cars are being driven with at least one "bald" tire.

None of this, Townsend believes, is helped by gas stations that charge for air, on the theory that many motorists will refuse to pay and continue to look for a station with free air - which they probably won't find.

And in the meantime, the pressure in their tires gets lower and lower, leaving the tire more and more unsafe.

On the other hand, it's not just gas stations charging for air and the Tiger Mart-ization of the industry that's causing U.S. motorists to neglect their tires.

We also appear to be a nation of sloths and ignoramuses when it comes to the whole subject of tire care.

In yet another nationwide survey trotted out by AAA, this one by the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) it was found that:

Only 19 percent of drivers even know how to properly check their tire pressure, which means checking it once a month before the car has even been driven a mile and inflating the tires to the vehicle manufacturer's recommended pressure, not the pressure listed on your tire. There was also another RMA statistic that Townsend took particular pains to point out when a reporter called.

Each month, he said, three out of four drivers wash their car, while only about one in five correctly checks their tire pressure.

"It means we're more concerned with appearance than safety," he said.

And perhaps more concerned with getting free air than any air at all.

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