By Amber Lewis
JRN 217: Journalistic Reporting and Writing
We’ve all been there before. One second you’re driving to the supermarket, making a mental list in your head of all of the groceries you need to buy, and the next you’re pulled over on the side of the highway, watching your front left tire slowly deflate as you sit on hold with roadside service. You know there’s a spare tire in your trunk — if only you knew how to put it on.
If you identify as a man in this hypothetical situation, you may be in luck. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Insurance.com, 94% of men know how to change a tire versus only 67% of women. And yet, Statista reported in 2018 that women made up more than half of all licensed drivers in the United States. So why do women find themselves on the less-prepared side of vehicle maintenance?
“Before I learned how to change a tire, I begged my dad to teach me,” said Teri Vieira, a 24-year-old Stony Brook University alumna. “He kept saying, ‘One day,’ and I was like, ‘One day I’m going to be stuck on the side of the road and I won’t know what to do!’” Vieira eventually did learn how to change a tire, though not from her dad. A group of boys from a fraternal organization showed her how after she and a friend got a flat as they were leaving a party.
“If I was in a situation where I had to [change a tire], I could do it,” Vieira added. “But I’m not super confident in my ability.”
On the other hand, 19-year-old Rachel Gmelin from Port Jefferson, New York, is very confident in her own tire-changing skills. She bought her first car when she was 18, and her dad taught her how to change the tires immediately.
“It’s honestly a lot more straightforward than it seems,” Gmelin explained.
The first step is to make sure the car is secure by placing it in park and turning it off. Then, locate the jack. The most common location for the car jack is underneath the floor of the trunk. Once you have the jack, place it under the same side of the car as the tire that needs to be changed. Jack the car up until the tire is off the ground.
Next, remove the hubcap, or the metal disk that covers the center of the tire. The lug nuts need to be removed as well. Each wheel has a handful of lug nuts, which are similar to screws. Their purpose is to secure the wheel to the car. The removal of these items requires a lug wrench, which is a type of socket wrench. Most car jacks have a built-in lug wrench.
After that, the tire can come off. Most cars have a spare tire underneath the trunk, which gets placed where the original was. Then the hubcap and lug nuts get screwed back on. It’s important that the lug nuts be tightened in a specific sequence. Work in a star-shaped pattern, tightening the nut that is directly opposite from the nut that was just tightened.
As a full-time student who commutes to work three to four days a week, Gmelin stresses the importance of self-sufficiency when it comes to car ownership: “Life is unpredictable,” she said. “You never know when you’ll need a tire change, and everyone should learn how in case they cannot get help.”
But sometimes even having all of the tools and knowledge necessary to change a tire just isn’t enough. For Temple University student Sara Gallegos, size and physical strength are two big barriers standing between her and female automobile empowerment.
“You need a lot of strength to be able to safely secure the jack underneath the car,” Gallegos said. “I’m only 5 feet tall. So even though I know the process, I feel like I don’t have the physical capability to do it well.”
Additionally, Gmelin, Vieira and Gallegos each said they would still call roadside service for help in the event of a flat. And it’s not that they don’t want to show off their knack for changing tires. They just want to keep themselves safe.
“Doing manual labor is not what bothers me. Being a 19-year-old girl alone on the side of the road does,” Gmelin said. “I know I could do it myself with no problem, but I would rather have reputable AAA employees on the side of the road with me than strangers that may stop to help.”
Amina Velazquez from Girls Auto Clinic, a Pennsylvania repair shop staffed with female mechanics and a spa for women in the waiting room, knows this phenomenon all too well. From being a manager at AutoZone to starting her own car detailing business, Velazquez has had her fair share of male would-be saviors.
“Something I’ve often experienced over my year of doing my mobile detailing business would be pulling up to guys on the side of the road to work on their cars, and other random guys would pull over too, and they’d yell, ‘Hey honey, you need some help over there?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m actually fixing this person’s car, I don’t need your help,” Velazquez said. “Luckily, they usually just drive off and keep on going about their day.”
Similarly, Velazquez has had to deal with plenty of male AutoZone customers who doubted her car expertise. But she has since then developed her own way of dealing with it.
“They’d come in asking for parts, and I’d tell them that the parts they are looking for don’t even correlate with one another. You just have to show them you know your stuff,” she said. “And then I get to watch their faces freeze up when they realize that I know more than they know.”
Velazquez can recall the first time she ever changed a tire. She was alone on the side of the road and had to call her boyfriend for help. But she didn’t ask him to come get her — she had him talk her through the process so that she could learn how to do all of the work herself.
“I remember I felt like a genius at that moment,” Velazquez said. “I was like, ‘I got the tire on without the man!’ It was an exhilarating moment.”