Is It Okay To Drive With A Lug Nut Missing?

Car problems have this habit of appearing at the worst possible time. For instance, you could be heading back to your vehicle after a coffee stop when it suddenly hits you that one of your wheel studs is missing a nut. Naturally, it takes a closer look to confirm that your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. But sooner or later comes the familiar dilemma: do you call for a roadside mechanic or just proceed with your journey?

Why Do Wheel Nuts Go Missing?

The role of lug nuts (AKA wheel nuts) is to hold wheels in place. Most hatchback, sedan and estate car models have four on each wheel, with SUVs having 5-7. The rule of thumb is that the larger the vehicle, the more lug nuts it’ll have.

Common sense dictates that a nut will fall off if it isn’t tightened down enough, but this can also happen due to excessive tightening. The tendency of metal to expand and contract in response to temperature fluctuations also contributes to the problem. Specifically, nuts mounted at different temperatures will inevitably come loose and go missing.

Fortunately, the motoring industry has developed a solution for the problem. This comes in the form of a sensor that sends out an alert when nuts go loose. Needless to say, a bit of caution can help you with lug nut safety if your vehicle doesn’t have this feature. But then again, there’s nothing to guarantee that you will notice a loose nut in time. Which brings forth the question: is it safe to drive with a missing lug nut?

A Nasty Recipe

No one’s going to tell you that driving with a wheel nut missing is a good idea. Not your significant other… Nor your mechanic… And certainly not the officer you’ll see in your rearview the next time you’re pulled over.

You see, lug nuts are designed to work as a unit. Each one holds up a certain amount of stress, with their combination supporting the wheel’s load in its entirety. A wheel nut deficiency will therefore:

-Subject the rest to more stress than they’re engineered to hold

-Create an imbalance within the wheel system, which in turn causes the vehicle to wobble when it changes speed/direction.

Left unaddressed, the deficiency will eventually cause one or more wheels to part company with the car. This could however occur sooner if you happen to, say, hit a pothole or steep curb.

So Now What?

No need to point out the obvious, but what if you don’t have a spare wheel nut? You may want to look for a tire shop nearby and get a replacement. If that isn’t possible, proceed at a reasonably low speed and arrange for the issue to be addressed as soon as you get to your destination. Either way, be sure to check that the other nuts are properly torqued up before setting off.

At the end of the day, though, missing wheel nuts are like other car problems — proper maintenance goes a long way in preventing them. Of course, it does help to know what you should do in case they occur unexpectedly. In that regard, make sure to include at least a couple of spares in your carry-on repair kit.