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Science Fair Project: Stopping Power
It’s science fair time across America.
Which also means it’s time for parents across the country to answer the question, “Dad/Mom, what should I do for my science fair project?”
This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer because most of us are not scientists and we don’t know anyone who is. Even if we were to have a regular cup of coffee with a scientist, his or her work probably wouldn’t be relevant to a seventh grader who gets a B in math class.
So let me propose a project idea that is fun, safe, has real-world relevance and doesn’t cost much. With a few supplies and a basic 100 foot tape measure you can design a project to demonstrate the critical safety importance of a good tire tread.
As a tire wears the ability of the tire to perform in rain and snow is reduced. With only 2/32″ of tread depth remaining, resistance to hydroplaning in the rain at highway speeds is significantly reduced, and traction in snow is virtually eliminated. (Yes, since this is a project science fair we could reduce the fraction to 1/16 inch, but the law and practice of tread depth uses 32nds of an inch as the scale of measurement.)
When tires are worn down to 2/32 of an inch you can see the tread wear indicator bars. These bars have been federally mandated since 1968 and require all tires sold in the United States to have indicators molded into their tread design that run across the tread pattern from the outer shoulder to the inner shoulder. Wear bars are designed to visually connect the tire tread pattern elements and alert drivers when their tires no longer meet minimum tread depth requirements.
Testing the stopping power of reduced tires with open tread bars is an easy, fun and exciting science experiment that can be accomplished in one afternoon with a few days of preparation. You will need:
- A set of tires with exposed wear bars.
- 100 foot tape measure.
- A stick of pavement chalk.
- Licensed driver for the car.
- Four 5 gallon buckets of water.
Finding tires with open tread bars sounds like the hardest part of the experiment, but it’s actually quite easy. You can find a dealer willing to sell you used tires for next to nothing by visiting a local Car Recycling Center (that’s what we call ourselves these days, but you can find for us in all parts of the country listed as Salvage Yard, Wrecking Yard, Junk Yards or Junk Yards). You’ll also want to make sure you buy four steel wheels that match the bolt pattern of your car. Most centers have a stock of steel wheels so with a little elbow grease you will find what you need. Install the tires and you are ready to test. You won’t need to get the tires balanced because you won’t be driving them except at the test site. One word of caution. You will stop suddenly on these tires to measure stopping power. So the tires need 2/32 of tread left. Completely bare tires or tires with exposed belts may not hold up during the test and may blow out under heavy stopping loads. Also, dry rotted tires where the rubber breaks when you pick it up with your fingernail won’t work.
Arrange with a local church or shopping center to use their car park. Churches work particularly well, because on many afternoons during the week the large car parks are completely empty. Your licensed driver will accelerate the car to 30 mph and then fully depress the brakes when they cross the “stop line”. So mark a stop line on the parking lot with about 100 yards ahead to accelerate and another 100 yards to slow down. (It won’t take as long to stop but having some extra space is safe.)
Once you have marked the course, pour the water into the stop area of the course.
Then carry out five test runs. The licensed driver will keep at 30 mph until the stop line is reached, then fully apply the brakes until the car comes to a complete stop. Turn the car off. Get out and measure the distance from the stop line to the front tires of the car. Repeat until you have data for five “good tire” stops.
Once you have your control data, change all four tires on the car, one at a time. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions in the owners manual for changing a tire. Make sure you use the parking brake and don’t let your foot or any other part of your body go under the car on the jack.
Now carry out five test stops on the worn tyres. You’ll want to make sure the course is still wet because we measure tire stopping ability in wet conditions when a lack of tread causes the biggest drop in performance. Because water cannot be compressed, your worn tires may not have enough tread depth to allow water to escape through the tire grooves. If the water cannot escape quickly enough, your vehicle’s tires will be forced to hydroplane (float) on top of the water, losing traction.
After completing the five stops on worn tires, DO NOT DRIVE HOME ON THESE TIRES. You will need to change back to your good tires for a safe ride home.
This experiment should provide a solid set of data for analysis and plotting. The student will need to do additional research on traction and friction along with a basic understanding of the incompressibility of water to write the research paper, but at least they won’t grow mold in your garage. And maybe if we can get some kids excited about science that has a clear and immediate benefit, we can make a small move toward building the next set of American engineers who will build our dream cars for tomorrow.
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