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The Long, Sadistic History of Slashing Tires (and Slaying Horses)

Attempting to force a knife into a tire is more likely to result in a busted hand than a flat

As you may have read, P!nk recently appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and revealed that she once attempted to slash her husband’s tires, slicing open her hand and acquiring 13 stitches in the process. “It was Thanksgiving,” she said, defending her actions. “The holidays are stressful.”

“I got clean through the first one,” P!nk continued. “He has a raised [Ford] F-250 and those tires are very thick — thank you very much. And the second one, I lost a little steam and I hit the metal part and my hand just went straight down the knife.”

The popularity of this story — and the headlines on headlines — immediately made me want to know why we instinctively want to cripple someone’s automobile when we’re pissed at them. Because P!nk’s hardly the only recent example: Just last year, a serial slasher was arrested in L.A. after slashing tires on nearly 100 vehicles. And last month, police arrested three people who scammed more than a dozen unsuspecting victims by slashing their tires, then offering help.

With this in mind, I reached out to Louis Fourie, president of the Society of Automotive Historians. While he couldn’t explain that particular desire, he did tell me how slashing even became a viable option. The tread portion of modern tires, Fourie explained — the rubber that actually makes contact with the road — has a steel banking for durability. When that steel banking was invented, the sidewalls (the outer section of the tire, where people usually slash) were made softer and more slashable. “The bias-ply tires that existed prior to the radial tire had far thicker and heavier sidewalls, because they didn’t have the stability of the steel,” he explains, adding that radial tires were patented in 1915 and popularized in the 1960s, so we can assume that shoving a knife into the plump, inviting sidewall of a tire has been going on for around 60 years. “But I cannot say that was the point in time when people began slashing tires,” Fourie adds.

So if the slashable tires we know today only really came about during the 1960s, what was the action’s equivalent before that? At the very least, we know that people weren’t slashing tires before 1895, when André Michelin became the first person to use pneumatic (or air-filled) tires in a race from Paris to Bordeaux and back. Michelin reportedly finished last, since the tires were unreliable, but the spectacle was apparently impressive enough to launch the market for detachable (and slashable) pneumatic tires.

But people have essentially been slashing tires — or rather, everything that came before tires — for a long, long time. The Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who lived in the late 4th century and possibly the early 5th century, details the use of horse-and-chariot-slashing weapons called caltrops in his book, Concerning Military Matters:

“The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy’s hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a device composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright.”

This, as you can imagine, is more like a mass-wounding than an expensive form of vandalization, but it’s clear that humans have always derived some measure of satisfaction from immobilizing their enemies’ vehicles. In his book The Hundred Years War about that century-long fight between the U.K. and France, British historian Desmond Seward explains that, during battle, horses were almost always the primary target: “As always the horses suffered most from the arrows, becoming unmanageable, bolting, while those that did reach English lines were impaled on the six-foot stakes that were at a horse’s breast-high.” And although these examples of early slashings took place during wartime, you can still imagine — back when cameras weren’t on every corner — how easy it might have been to get away with slashing someone’s horse, or busting the wheel on their chariot.

Back, however, to tire-slashing as we know it today. Mark Trotta, founder of Classic-Car-History, tells me that increased incidences of tire-slashing during the 1960s may not just have been because tires became easier to slash. “I’m no expert, but in my humble opinion, reports of tire-slashing seemed to climb in the 1960s, which probably had something to do with society getting colder and people getting meaner,” he says.

Which might well be true: In response to an extremely complicated series of events — one being that crime-prone Baby Boomers far outnumbered the older generation — crime surged during the 1960s. Furthermore — and this may be a stretch — some suggest that the high levels of environmental lead in the 1960s, before lead-based paints and gasolines were banned, may have encouraged such criminal activity. Research from the mid-1990s, for instance, found that children who were previously treated for lead poisoning were also more prone to violence and aggression. Meanwhile, more recent research examining the relationship between lead and behavioral problems supported these claims. All of which could possibly mean that their literally toxic environment encouraged the already criminal-prone Boomers to commit even more crimes, which would include slashing tires.

But, y’know, cocaine was also pretty popular during the 1960s, too, so maybe that had something to do with it.

Whatever the cause, logistically speaking, slashing a tire is actually pretty damn difficult. Tires are incredibly durable — they roll at high speeds, carrying heavy loads, for long periods of time over crap-covered streets and highways. As such, many people, including P!nk, slice their hands open while attempting to slash tires with a plain ol’ knife: They don’t expect the tire to withstand the blow, so their hands slide down onto the blade. Which, as it turns out, isn’t the worst outcome:

As the video above shows, slashing a tire with a knife might cause a literal explosion as all that pressure is immediately released. However, this apparently only happens when slashing tires on large trucks, like 18-wheelers, since the pressure in these tires is much greater than in the tires on your average commercial vehicle (commercial car tires usually sit around 30 PSI, whereas truck tires typically settle between 85 PSI and 105 PSI). Even then, though, a slashed tire is more likely to let out a loud, but harmless whoosh, rather than blast you so hard that your shirt rips off your body.

To be on the safe side, however, should you be looking to commit criminal mischief (up to 60 days in jail if the damage is less than $200; up to a year in jail if the damage is between $200 and $999), or if your target drives an extremely valuable car, a 3rd degree felony (up to five years in a state prison if the damage exceeds $1,000), you could try taking the advice of this redditor. They recommend using a drill bit, rather than a knife, when slashing tires [sic]: “Using a drill bit let’s the hole seal itself a little, and the tire won’t deflate much [further reducing the chances of explosion] until the car is moving. Vice grips on a two-to-three millimeter bit work wonders. Do one front and one rear tire so a spare won’t cut it.” Another fella on Yahoo! Answers agrees, adding that tires are much more difficult to slash than they are to puncture.

Meanwhile, what of tire-slashing’s weaker cousin, keying? We know that even the earliest cars had a paint job capable of being keyed — the world’s first automobile, the 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, was painted green, with a fully-exposed, bright red engine to boot.

But unlike slashing, we might soon witness the death of keying, since more and more automobile manufacturers are switching over to fob- and smartphone-based starter systems. Take, for instance, the new Tesla Model 3 — it gives you the option of using your phone or a flimsy key card, neither of which are capable of keying. House keys are similarly being replaced by smartphones — something I reported on in a previous article about when everything in your pocket will go digital — meaning we may soon live in an entirely keyless society.

So, future would-be keyers, carry a good Swiss Army Knife, I guess. Then you can scratch up that paint job and maybe puncture the tires while you’re at it. Because if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.