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Science Fair Project: Stopping Power
It’s time to do science 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 don’t know anyone who is. Even if we were to have a regular cup of coffee with a scientist, his work probably wouldn’t apply to a seventh grader who gets a B in math class.
So let me offer a project idea that’s fun, safe, has real-world applicability, and doesn’t cost much. 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, the tire’s ability to perform in rain and snow is reduced. With only 2/32″ of tread depth remaining, hydroplaning resistance in the rain at highway speeds has been significantly reduced and snow traction has been virtually eliminated. (Yes, how since this is a science fair project we could reduce the fraction to 1/16 inch, but tread depth law and practice use 32 parts of an inch as the measurement scale.)
When the tires are worn down to 2/32 inch, you can see the tread wear indicator bars. These bars have been federally mandated since 1968 and require all tires sold in the US 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 elements of a tire’s tread pattern and alert drivers when their tires no longer meet minimum tread depth requirements.
Testing the reduced stopping power of tires with exposed treads is an easy, fun and exciting science experiment that can be accomplished in an afternoon with a few days of preparation. You will need a:
- Set of tires with visible wear bars.
- 100 foot tape measure.
- Sidewalk plaster stick.
- Authorized driver of the car.
- Four 5 gallon buckets of water.
Finding tires with exposed treads seems like the hardest part of the experiment, but it’s actually pretty easy. You can find a dealer willing to sell your used tires for next to nothing if you visit a local auto recycling center (that’s what we’re called these days, but you can find us all over the country as salvage yards, wrecking yards, Junk Yards or Junkyards). You’ll also want to make sure you buy four steel wheels that match your car’s bolt pattern. Most centers have plenty of steel wheels, so a little elbow grease and you’ll find what you need. Mount the tires and you’re ready to test. You won’t need to balance your tires because you won’t be driving them except at the test site. A word of caution. You will be stopping hard with these tires to measure stopping power. Therefore, the tires must have 2/32 of the tread. Completely bald tires or tires with exposed belts may not hold up during the test and may blow out under heavy stall loads. Also, dry rot tires where the rubber breaks when you pick it up with your fingernail will not work.
Arrange with a local church or mall to use their parking lot. Churches work especially well, because on many weekday afternoons the large parking lots are completely empty. Your licensed driver will accelerate the car to 30mph and then fully apply the brakes as they cross the ‘stop line’. So you mark a stop line in the parking lot with about 100 meters ahead to speed up and another 100 meters to slow down. (It won’t take as far to stop, but having a little extra room is safe.)
Once the route is marked, pour the water into the stopping area of the route.
Then do five tests. The licensed driver will hold at 30 mph until the stop line is reached, then apply the brakes fully 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 from five “good tires” 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 get under the car on the jack.
Now do five test stops with worn tires. You want to make sure the track is still wet because we’re measuring the tires’ stopping ability in wet conditions when the lack of tread causes the biggest drop in performance. Because water cannot be compressed, worn tires may not have enough tread depth to allow water to escape through the tire grooves. If the water can’t escape fast enough, the vehicle’s tires will be forced to hydroplan (float) on top of the water, losing traction.
When completing five stops with worn tires, DO NOT DRIVE HOME WITH THOSE TIRES. You’ll need to get back to your good tires to get home safely.
This experiment should provide a solid set of data to analyze and plot. The student will need to do additional research on traction and friction along with a basic understanding of the incompressibility of water in order 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 make a small move toward building the next set of American engineers who will build our dream cars of tomorrow.
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