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Wheel Alignment 101

Getting your wheels aligned is an important, yet often overlooked, part of vehicle ownership. It’s something that you should get done on a regular basis to ensure that you’re safe on the road. The term “wheel alignment” can be a bit confusing. While the angle that your wheels point is certainly affected, the part of your car that’s really being adjusted is the suspension system.

Why Do Wheels Become Misaligned?

The suspension system connects the body of your vehicle to the wheels. It also creates relative motion between the two. Your suspension will absorb most of the shock as you drive so that you can remain stable and comfortable in the driver’s seat.

Most vehicle manufacturers build their suspension systems with a bit of flexibility. This is great when you need to make adjustments based on the terrain you’re driving on. However, this adjustability also leads to wheel misalignment over time. The constant wear and tear that your vehicle experienced on your daily commute causes the various components to loosen up and change. Even a single incident can lead to issues. It’s not uncommon for wheels to go out of alignment after driving over particularly rough roads, hitting a pothole, or driving over a curb.

Why is Wheel Alignment Important?

Driving on wheels that are not calibrated correctly can increase your risk of issues in the long run. Misalignment causes uneven wear on your tires. Tires are specifically designed with extra durability on the treads. When the wheels are not aligned, you may experience uneven wear.

This can lead to potentially-dangerous tire blowouts. Blowouts occur when your tires are put under more stress than they should be. A single point of damage can give out, causing the entire tire to explode. Alignments can also improve the overall driving experience. The process changes the way your wheels make contact with the road, so you may notice improved steering and handling.

How Often is an Alignment Necessary?

In most cases, misalignment occurs over time, so it can be difficult to determine when things are not lined up like they should be. Once you do finally notice a change in the way your vehicle handles the road, significant tire damage might already be present. For this reason, it’s a good idea to invest in alignment services on a regular basis.

The exact timeframe for inspections varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Most include recommendations in the owner’s manual for easy reference. Typically, it’s recommended that you get your wheels aligned during every other oil change. You can also choose to get it done during tire rotations. If you’re getting new tires installed, it’s important that you get the wheels aligned to ensure that your investment doesn’t wear unevenly.

Below is a video breaking down the various types of alignment issues that can occur over time. The main three are camber, caster, and tow. CNET does an in-depth interview with Ron Vascancello of Dependable Tire & Break of San Rafael, California.

Signs That You Need an Alignment

There are a few telltale signs that you need to bring your car in for an alignment. The first and most noticeable is pulling. Alignment issues will cause your vehicle to veer to left or right while you’re driving straight. You may even notice a jarring motion when you try to correct it. Another obvious sign is the steering wheel in front of you. In a car that has properly aligned wheels, the steering wheel will be completely even when you’re driving straight. If it looks crooked, you’re experiencing alignment problems.

You can also perform a visual inspection. Place the steering wheel in a straight position and take a look at how the wheels are pointed. There are a couple factors you should look at. The first is the toe. This refers to the inward or outward angle the tires point from above. The second is camber. The camber is the vertical angle or lean of the tires. If any of these angles are not straight, you need to get the vehicle serviced as soon as possible. Also, take a look at the wear pattern on the tires themselves. If it’s uneven or scattered, alignment is necessary.