Seven Tips to Avoid Auto Breakdowns
Nothing can spoil a vacation—or, for that matter, even a quick trip for errands—like having your car break down. In a given year, the AAA—the national federation of auto clubs that provides roadside service—will get about 30 million calls just from its member motorists needing help. In taking care of your car, you want to avoid joining those miserable millions.
One main reason for calling AAA is, of course, towing after an accident. No one can be sure of avoiding that emergency apart from trying to drive safely. But you can avoid most of the other main breakdowns by paying careful attention to your car and getting timely maintenance done.
"The best thing anyone can do for a vehicle is regular maintenance," says David Bennett, manager of automotive programs at the national office of AAA in Heathrow, Fla. "Nobody can foresee all problems, but regular maintenance improves your chances of avoiding trouble."
1. Battery troubleIf your battery is dead, you can't start the car. In general, batteries should last for three years to five years. But that time can be much shorter if you drive a lot in high heat or extreme cold. Make sure to have your battery checked during any safety inspection or other visit to a dealer or mechanic's shop, Bennett advises, especially if your battery is three or more years old. Some danger signals: dim headlights or interior lights and power windows slower than usual to go up and down.
2. LockoutsAdvice on this subject is obvious but, based on the data, a lot of motorists do not follow it. Get additional sets of keys and store them outside the car in your home and office. If you're going on a road trip, give a set of keys to another member of your party. Finally, if you have a General Motors car and pay the $199 a year subscription fee for its OnStar service, OnStar operators can unlock your car remotely. (The main motivation for most OnStar subscribers is that the system automatically will notify emergency responders if your car is in a crash.) With free smartphone apps that you can download from the GM website, you can unlock your car yourself through OnStar without having to call an operator.
Make sure you have roadside service.
3. Engine troubleThis heading covers a multitude of specific problems, of course. But most often it starts with a problem such as a broken hose leaking coolant and your engine overheating. To inspect belts and hoses, look for cracks and peeling on the belts and softening on the hoses. Also check the levels of transmission and other fluids with a dipstick similar to that for checking oil. AAA's Bennett suggests guarding against engine trouble by keeping track of your gas mileage from month to month. If you notice a sudden drop in that mileage, it likely is a signal that something is amiss in the engine—or possibly the transmission.
4. Transmission problems
Each year the AAA gets about 30 million calls from motorists needing help.Spotting transmission problems in a modern, computerized car has become trickier. What was readily identifiable as a slipping transmission in earlier generations of vehicles can now actually be problems with sensors or software controlling the engine. Nonetheless, if you do feel slipping or a jerk when you put the automatic transmission into gear, get the transmission checked out. Be sure during any kind of routine maintenance that your dealer or mechanic checks all fluids, including transmission fluid.
5. Brake troubleNothing is more crucial to your safety than your brakes. Be sure to get your brake pads and rotors checked at least twice a year. Additionally, the brake fluid needs to be changed every two to three years, depending on recommendations in your owner's manual. Trouble signs: pulling to one side when you hit the brakes, squeaking or grinding noises, and a brake pedal that feels too soft.
6. Flat tires
Worn tires make it hard to stop, so be sure to inspect yours regularly. Try the coin test on your tires. Insert a quarter into several grooves across each tire. If part of Washington's head is always covered, you still have 4/32-inch of tread left and can probably drive safely. If you have less tread, think about replacing the tires. A definite danger signal is if you slip a penny into a tread groove and it does not reach Lincoln's head.
If your tires are OK, make sure you keep them inflated to the pressure listed on the placard visible when the driver's door is open. You can boost your gas mileage by 3% or more and make the car safer with timely tire checks. To get an accurate reading, check the pressure of tires when they are cold, not when you have been driving. Additionally, check to make sure you have a spare tire and jack. That might make the difference between having the roadside technician change the tire on the spot and having to have your car towed to a shop.
Have your battery checked during safety inspections.
7. Running out of gas
Don't be careless and take chances on reaching that next gas station beyond this one. You'll regret it. If the warning light showing that the tank is nearly empty comes on, stop for gas just as soon as you can.
Finally, just in case your precautions don't protect you, make sure you have roadside service. If you are a member of AAA, roadside assistance is free for up to four calls a year, although you still will have to pay for any needed repairs. You also may have roadside assistance through your insurance provider. And many new cars now come with roadside service for some period of time, often paired with free maintenance.
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