Why The Tire Pressure Light Is The Most Useless Warning Light

Warning lights have never been the most helpful thing in the world. They're there to tell you when something's about to go wrong, but without giving you a good estimate on how severe or how soon things are going to get really screwed up. A warning light just tells you to be a little more on edge.

Your instrument panel is full of lights that tell you when something's happening – or isn't. There's one if your parking brake is on, one if you turned off your traction control, one if your seatbelt isn't on. When my car flashes the airbag light, what am I supposed to do exactly, not crash? Thanks, I knew that already. But the most useless of all is the one for the tire pressure monitoring system, given the rather unfortunate abbreviation of TPMS.

What does TPMS look like? If you've never seen the most bizarre yellow light with exclamation point flash on your dash, it's either because you keep your tires inflated to exactly the right psi or your car is older than model year 2008, under the TREAD (Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation) Act of 2000.

That little light is required on all new cars in response to the Firestone tire/Ford Explore debacle of more than a decade ago, and one of the culprits in all of the tread separation, high rollover risk explanations was that most people have way underinflated tires.

I maintain it's imperative to check your tires and make sure they're properly inflated. Check them so often that you confuse the proper psi level with your age. But that one little light is probably the most agitating warning on your dashboard.

In most cars with TPMS, that little yellow light goes on whenever one of your tires gets below 25% of its standard pressure. While that sounds fine, it's a pain the ass in practice. Most systems fitted as standard to cars these days don't tell you which one of your tires is low, meaning you have to analyze each tire to see which one is low, or test all four of them and then add air.

Why does this piss me off so much? Because last week, I was on a several hundred-mile trip down from San Francisco and in kind of a hurry. Everything was fine until I got TPMS on my dash. It didn't feel like I had a flat or anything, so I pulled off at a gas station in Nowhere, California, and poked and checked the pressure on every single tire to find nothing was wrong.

About five minutes of looking for the TPMS light solved the problem. For about five miles. That light has been on for about four days now, and so far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong. What I had instead was this fear for the next few hours that something wasn't right and I had a little yellow light to remind me. I kept waiting for the smell of burning rubber or the steering wheel to go crazy as if I had a flat, and any road imperfection made me freak out more than I should have. In short, it made for the most stressful driving experience in a long time.

A light telling me that one of my tires is low without telling me which one is as useful as a light telling me I've left a window wide open. The only way these systems work is if they actually tell you which tire is low. I have no idea how expensive system like that are, but I know GM found enough money to put that more advanced system in a 2008 Chevy Cobalt, so why can't Volkswagen put it in a 2013 Golf? Maybe I should just go back to an old car that has fewer warning lights.

I could be overreacting. But what do you guys think of TPMS, worthwhile or just a nuisance? And how carefully do you watch your tire pressure?