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Science Fair Project: Stopping Power
It’s time for science fairs all over America.
Which also means it’s time for parents across the country to answer the question, “Mom/Dad, 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 don’t know anyone who is. Even if we had a regular cup of coffee with a scientist, his work probably wouldn’t apply to a seventh grader who gets Bs in math class.
So let me come up with a project idea that is fun, safe, real-world applicable, and inexpensive. With a few supplies and a basic 100 foot tape measure, you can design a project to show the safety critical importance of good tread.
As a tire wears, its ability 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 has been significantly reduced and traction in snow has been virtually eliminated. (Yes, since it’s (this is a science fair project, we could reduce the fraction to 1/16 inch, but tread depth law and practice uses 32 inches as the scale of measurement.)
When the 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 for sale in the United States to have indicators molded into their tread that cross the tread from the outside shoulder to the inside shoulder. Wear bars are designed to visually connect tire tread elements and alert drivers when their tires no longer meet minimum tread depth requirements.
Testing the reduced braking power of tires with exposed treads is an easy, fun and exciting science experiment that can be done in an afternoon with a few days of preparation. You will need a:
- Set of tires with exposed wear bars.
- 100 foot tape measure.
- Sidewalk chalk stick.
- Licensed driver for the car.
- Four 5 gallon buckets of water.
Finding tires with exposed treads seems like the hardest part of the experience, but it’s actually quite easy. You can find a dealer willing to sell you scrap tires for next to nothing by visiting a local auto recycling center (that’s what we call ourselves these days, but you can find us all over the country listed as recovery, demolition sites, Junk Yards or dumps). You will also want to make sure that you buy four steel wheels that match your car’s bolt pattern. Most centers have a stack of steel wheels, so with a little elbow grease and you’ll find what you need. Get the tires fitted and you’re ready to test. You won’t need to balance the tires because you won’t be riding on them except at the test site. A word of warning. You will come to a sudden stop on these tires to gauge braking power. The tires must therefore have 2/32 tread. Completely bald tires or tires with exposed belts may not hold during the test and may explode under heavy arresting loads. Also, dry rotten tires where the rubber breaks off when you pick it up with your fingernail won’t work.
Arrange with a local church or shopping center to use their parking lot. Churches work especially well, as on many weekday afternoons the large parking lots are completely empty. Your authorized driver will accelerate the car to 30 mph, then fully apply the brakes when it crosses the “stop line”. So mark a stop line in the parking lot with about 100 meters ahead to accelerate and another 100 meters to decelerate. (It won’t take that long to stop, but having the extra space is sure.)
Once you have marked the course, pour the water over the stopping area of the course.
Then perform five trials. The licensed driver will hold at 30 mph until they come to the stop line, then fully apply the brakes until the car comes to a complete stop. Turn off the car. 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 owner’s manual for changing a tire. Be sure to engage the parking brake and do not let your foot or any other part of your body go under a car on the jack.
Now make five test stops on the worn tires. You’ll want to make sure the course is always wet as we measure the stopping ability of tires in wet conditions when the lack of tread causes the greatest decrease in performance. Since 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) above the water, losing traction.
After making all five stops on worn tires, DO NOT DRIVE HOME ON THESE TIRES. You will need to change your good tires to get home safely.
This experiment should yield a solid set of data for analysis and plotting. The student will need to do some additional research on traction and friction while gaining 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 direct benefit, we can take a small step toward building the next group of American engineers who will build our dream cars of tomorrow.
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