By Jim Kerr
Spring has flown by and already the first long weekend of Summer has passed. I know – Summer doesn’t officially begin yet, but Summer travel season has, and the adventure of family trips to the cottage or relatives often overshadows the importance of making sure your vehicle is ready for the task.
Service shops are often fully booked with last minute work before any Summer weekend, so book early. There are several items you can check yourself in a few minutes that could save you grief and frustration on the road.
The easiest item for any driver to check, and perhaps the most important for safety reasons, is tire pressure. Air normally leaks out of a good tire at a rate of about one PSI per month. If you haven’t checked your tire pressure lately, it is likely low, and that can cause dangerous heat build-up in the tire material that can cause it to fail. A properly inflated tire improves fuel economy too. Don’t forget to check the spare tire. Flat tires don’t occur often but when they do, having a flat spare is a major inconvenience.
Look for worn tread and bulges or cuts on the tire sidewalls. Solid rubber bands showing across the face of the tire indicate it is worn to unsafe levels, while impacts with those spring potholes may have damaged tire sidewalls. Tires may seem expensive, but replacing them is much cheaper than having an accident because of a blowout.
Fluid levels under the hood should be your next priority. The demise of most full service filling stations has led to many vehicles on the road with low engine oil levels. It only takes a minute to check the oil level, and if it is low or it hasn’t been changed since last Fall, it is probably time for a change anyway.
I wouldn’t bother to check transmission fluid level unless you have obvious leaks on the driveway. Transmission dipsticks are no longer found on many vehicles and the only time they require checking is if the transmission isn’t shifting correctly or there is evidence of a leak.
Other fluid levels to check include power steering, brake fluid, engine coolant and windshield washer fluid. Most of these require only a visual inspection because the reservoirs are see-through. It is bug season, so adding an extra jug of washer fluid to the trunk while you can purchase it at leisure will save you money on the road.
While under the hood, take a good look at hose connections and belts. If your vehicle is older, you may see hoses start to check or crack near connections. Replacing them before they fail on a trip always saves money. As for belts, that tale about using panty hose to replace a broken drive belt is just that – a tale. We have tried it several times in the shop, never with any success. Replace frayed belts before a trip.
Good visibility can save your life. Keeping the windshield clean is much easier if the wiper blades are in good condition. Although they may look fine, most wiper blades last only a year or two because of damage from sun and smog. Installing refills (replacement rubber parts) is the most economical way to go, but some blades only come as complete assemblies and can be changed in seconds.
Check all your vehicle’s lights, including signal and brake lights. I drive many highways at night and almost one out of every five vehicles I meet has at least one headlight not working. Not only does this make it more difficult for other driver’s to see you, it also makes it more difficult for you to see roadside objects, such as wild animals or debris.
Other items such as exhaust system mountings and suspension components are best left to professionals, and don’t need to be checked before every trip but should be inspected at least once a year.
A vehicle is made up of over 15,000 individual parts. No matter how carefully everything is inspected, you can’t predict exactly what will work or fail, but a few minutes doing simple inspections can mean the difference between a fun road trip or an expensive tow to the nearest repair shop. You have seen those vehicles disabled on the side of the road. A few minutes before you leave may be all that it takes to avoid joining their ranks.