Don't wait for an emergency to find out whether something works

Joseph Nguyen got a flat tire in the worst way.

It shouldn't have been a problem. The Watauga man is a mechanic at Lockheed Martin.

He was driving his 2004 Toyota Camry on the overpass that takes motorists from Interstate 30 East near downtown Fort Worth to Interstate 35W North. Nguyen was about four stories above the ground, coming down the slope that's like a roller-coaster ride.

"I hear a pop. The car is shaking. I stop and pull over."

Hole in the right front tire. He removed the spare tire from the trunk and jacked up the car.

It was 4 p.m. July 7. Traffic backed up. Nguyen and his car were on the shoulder of the treacherous ramp. No shade. Temperature in the 90s.

And the spare wouldn't align with the bolts on his wheel. Although the mechanic had once used the spare for a flat rear tire, this time he couldn't make it fit.

He was frustrated -- and thirsty. He called 911. "I need some water," he said. A dispatcher promised help.

A half-hour later, two police cars arrived. An officer tried to change the tire. "It's not the right one," he agreed. Police called for a tow.

A firetruck arrived, answering a call about a dehydrated man stuck on the ramp. A firefighter gave him water.

Then an ambulance arrived. Nguyen was shaky. A paramedic gave him more water.

It was now rush hour. Traffic backed up for as far as Nguyen could see. Two police cars, a firetruck and an ambulance didn't help the traffic problem.

"I'm real mad," he said. "I stay in the car and turn on the air conditioning. Because I have water, I feel better. And I wait for the tow truck."

At 6:30 p.m., after 21/2 hours, a tow truck arrived. By the time the truck towed his car to the repair shop, it was closed. The car was towed to his home.

Nguyen next called Toyota's U.S. headquarters in California. He was told to call his area dealership. Nguyen visited Freeman Toyota. His invoice states, "Spare tire is a size 15 and vehicle recommendation [is] for a size 16." Freeman sent him to Vandergriff Toyota, where Nguyen bought the car four years ago, used, with 4,000 miles.

Under Texas law, used cars are sold "as is" unless the seller offers an added return policy or warranty. In this case, after four years, Vandergriff Toyota is under no obligation to do anything for Nguyen.

Still, Vandergriff gave him a new spare for free.

Vandergriff customer relations manager Radonna Gritten says the reason is that the dealership wants used-car buyers "to be just as happy" as new-car buyers.

"I have apologized to Mr. Nguyen, but he's very adamant," she said.

Nguyen is asking Vandergriff to also pay his $200 towing bill and $35 rental-car charge. He hasn't received an answer.

Gritten gave it to me: "The fact that this was four years later threw me off. I do realize he is requesting we pay his tow bill. From what I understand, we're not going to do that."

What happened here? My guess is that before the used car was sold, someone put the wrong-size spare in the trunk and at least one improper-size wheel on the car. A Camry uses 16-inch tires. But a 15-inch spare worked on one of his wheels and not on another.

Because he used the spare once, he assumed the spare would work for all four tires.

"Most of the time, your spare tire fits all four," Gritten said.

For Nguyen, the dominoes keep falling. To replace the one bad tire, because of uneven wear on the others, "I had to buy all four new tires." Another $535.

This story reminds us to challenge our assumptions. We assume the spare tire will fit. The jack will work. We figure the fire extinguisher in the kitchen will spray and the backup valve on the water heater will hold. Our assumptions sometimes get us in trouble.

"Check the spare before you go on vacation," Nguyen said. "Make sure you have the right one. You never know what's going to happen on the freeway or wherever."

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber