Everything you need to know about tire tread depth

Updated on 30.01.2023

Tire tread depth is an important factor in ensuring the safety of your vehicle. It is the measurement of the grooves in your tire that helps to provide traction and prevent hydroplaning on wet roads. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about tire tread depth, including the minimum safe tread depth, legal tire tread depth, how to check the tire tread depth, and what is considered to be good tire tread depth.

What is the minimum safe and legal tread depth?

The minimum safe tread depth is typically considered to be 2/32 or 1/16 of an inch. This is the minimum legal tread depth in most states, and it is the point at which the tire's ability to provide adequate traction is compromised. It is important to note that this minimum safe tread depth is only recommended for temporary use, and it is best to replace your tires well before they reach this point.

While there are no federal laws specifically dealing with tread depth, 42 states and Canada have regulations in place, with a minimum legal tread depth of 2/32 of an inch. Two other states, including California, have a minimum of 1/32 of an inch. However, six states have no standards. Since 1968, federal law has required that a wear bar be molded across all tires, indicating when tires have worn down to the legal limit of 2/32 of an inch. All tires sold and manufactured in North America are required to have these wear bars, which become visible when the tires have worn out and should be replaced immediately. It is dangerous to drive on tires with tread depth less than 2/32 of an inch and could result in a ticket in some states. 

What is the tread depth on a new tire?

The tread depth on a new tire is usually around 10/32 of an inch or 8mm. This varies depending on the manufacturer and the type of tire, but it is generally around this depth.

All-terrain and mud tires have much bigger tread, it can be up to 1 or even 1.5 inches.

How to Check Tire Tread Depth

To check your tire tread depth, there are several methods and instruments that can be used:

The penny test

The penny test is a simple method that involves inserting a penny into the tread of your tire, with Lincoln's head facing down. If you can see the top of Lincoln's head, your tire tread depth is less than 2/32 of an inch and it's time to replace your tires.

penny test

The quarter test is another way to check tread depth. Place a quarter into the tread groove. If the top of Washington's head is visible, the tread is at least 4/32 inches deep.

Tire tread depth gauge

tire tread depth gauge

Another method is to use a tire tread depth gauge, which is a specialized tool that can give you an accurate measurement of your tire tread depth. Such a device is inexpensive, but at the same time is not often used unless you work in the field related to automobile tires.

Vernier caliper

A caliper is a very accurate instrument that many people have in their garage or at home. Not everyone knows that it has a depth rod, just for measuring the depth of something. To measure the depth of a tire protector, you need to set the caliper to zero, lean it against the tire at a 90-degree angle, and extend the instrument until the depth rod touches the bottom of the tire groove.

Tread wear indicator bars

Tire wear indicator

A tread wear indicator, or TWI, is a small bump found within the grooves of a tire's tread pattern. When the tire's tread depth reaches the minimum level of 1.6 mm (2/32 inch), the TWI will be even with the tire's tread surface. It is crucial to change tires as soon as the TWI becomes visible.

Business cards

No kidding, there is just such a way! Some tire manufacturers or retailers produce business cards or other printed marketing products with wear indicators on them.

Bussines card for measuring tire tread

What is good tire tread depth?

So, we have determined what is the minimum depth of tire tread, so as not to break the law and at least somehow stay on the road. Now we need to talk about what tread depth is good enough for normal driving. Let's look at the tests from manufacturers and independent organizations.

Adac tests and recommendations

According to ADAC (Germany's largest automobile association) tests, the minimum legal tread depth provides only minimal safety. To ensure optimal safety in wet, snowy, or slushy conditions, summer tires should have a tread depth of at least 3mm (~ 4/32 inches), and winter or all-season tires should have a tread depth of at least 4mm (5/32 inches).

In some European countries, tires with less than 4mm of tread depth are classified as summer tires, and may not be used on certain roads during the winter, such as in Austria.

To evaluate the impact of low tread depth on tire performance, ADAC tested winter tires that rely heavily on their tread's grip in snowy, wet, and slippery conditions. The test used 185/60 R14 tires and evaluated driving and braking performance on dry, wet, and snow-covered roads at three different tread depths: 8mm (new condition), 7.5mm, and 4mm (recommended replacement point).

Here are the results chart:

ADAC snow braking test on new and worn tires

On snow

The contrast between new and worn tires is most apparent on snow. Even a tire with 4mm of tread causes a 10.5 feet longer braking distance than a new tire at 18.6 mph. The difference in traction is even more pronounced when starting or driving on inclines, as the depth of the sipes - grooves in the tire - plays a crucial role in gripping loose snow. It is clear that a tire with a 7.5mm remaining tread depth can only exert 60% of the traction force compared to a new tire with a slightly deeper 0.5mm profile, and a tire with only 4mm of tread can only manage half as much.

Wet conditions

When driving in wet conditions, it is crucial for a tire's tread to effectively channel and displace water using its longitudinal grooves and sipes, to avoid hydroplaning. It's clear that a tire worn down to 4mm will start to aquaplaning at 40mph, while a new tire will only start aquaplaning at 54mph.

During wet braking, the rubber compound is the most critical factor. In this scenario, the worn tire also performs worse with a 7% longer braking distance (measured at 50mph).

Dry road

As you can see on the chart, on winter tires, braking distances actually shorten as the tread wears down. The reason for this is that the flatter tread blocks deform less while braking, resulting in more rubber making contact with the road surface.

Continental recommendations

Tire manufacturer Continental conducted its braking tests on wet and snowy roads. The tests were:
195/65 R15 91V, ContiPremiumContact 2, VW Golf IV, braking on wet, from 50mph to 0 mph
205/55 R16 91H, ContiWinterContact TS 830, VW Golf V, braking on snow, from 30mph to 0 mph.

The results of the wet braking test are shown in the chart below.

Wet braking worn tires test

We see that the new tires helped the car stop at 139 feet, with a 4/32 inch(3mm) tread depth remaining at 170 feet, and with the minimum recommended tread depth of 2/32 inch(1.6mm), the car was able to stop from 80 mph in 200 feet. That is, the difference between new and worn tires was 61 feet, which is about the same as three Chevy Suburbans.

The big drop in performance of worn tires in the wet is mainly due to aquaplaning. When a wheel drives into the water at speed, the tire's worn grooves have no time to remove water from the contact patch with the road. And the more the tires are worn, the greater the layer of water between the tire and the road.

aquaplanning tread depth

Here you can see how the contact patch of new and worn tires looks on the wet road at different speeds.

contact pattern on different speeds

The results of the snow braking test are shown in the chart below.

Snow braking worn tires test

We see that the new tires helped the car stop at 102 feet, with a 5/32 inch(4mm) tread depth remaining at 148 feet, and with the minimum recommended tread depth of 2/32 inch(1.6mm), the car was able to stop from 30 mph in 187 feet. That is, the difference between new and worn tires was 61 feet, which is roughly equal to more than four Chevy Suburbans. For winter tires, tread depth is especially important because the winter tire pattern is equipped with special sipes - very thin slots whose task is to increase the softness of the tire blocks, thereby increasing the contact patch with the road. These sipes wear out rather quickly, and this leads to a loss of traction qualities.  Here's a diagram of how the qualities of winter tires and their individual parts change depending on wear.

sipes, tread, compound of worn tires

Tire tread depth conversion chart to the percentage of wear

Tire Thread depth chart

Tire Tread Depth Conversion to 32nds

Fraction /32"s Inch mm
1/32" 0.031 0.79
2/32" 0.063 1.59
3/32" 0.094 2.38
4/32" 0.125 3.18
5/32" 0.156 3.97
6/32" 0.188 4.76
7/32" 0.219 5.56
8/32" 0.250 6.35
9/32" 0.281 7.14
10/32" 0.313 7.94
11/32" 0.344 8.73
12/32" 0.375 9.53
13/32" 0.406 10.32
14/32" 0.438 11.11
15/32" 0.469 11.91
16/32" 0.500 12.70
17/32" 0.531 13.49
18/32" 0.563 14.29
19/32" 0.594 15.08
20/32" 0.625 15.88
21/32" 0.656 16.67
22/32" 0.688 17.46
23/32" 0.719 18.26
24/32" 0.750 19.05
25/32" 0.781 19.84
26/32" 0.813 20.64
27/32" 0.844 21.43
28/32" 0.875 22.23
29/32" 0.906 23.02
30/32" 0.938 23.81
31/32" 0.969 24.61
32/32" 1.000 25.40


In conclusion, tire tread depth is a crucial factor in the safety of your vehicle. It is important to regularly check your tire tread depth and replace your tires when the tread becomes worn. The minimum safe tread depth is 2/32 of an inch, but it is recommended to replace your tires well before they reach this point.