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Prevent & Manage Vehicle Breakdowns

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The most common reasons for breakdowns relate to failed tires, running out of gas, engine overheating, and dead batteries.

Prevent tire-related breakdowns: Taking good care of tires can prevent crashes, as well as breakdowns.

  • Have tires inspected, rotated, and balanced by professionals every 5,000 miles.
  • Check air pressure every month and before long trips. Best to check when tires are cold. Use a tire pressure gauge, and find the recommended PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) on the driver’s side door jam or in the owner’s manual (not from pressure shown on the tire sidewall).

Manage tire-related breakdowns: Safety comes first. Find a safe location to stop; it’s okay to drive slowly on a flat tire’s rim for a short distance to a wide shoulder, rest stop, gas station, or parking lot, making sure to activate your car’s hazard lights.

Consult the vehicle operator’s manual when you change the tire, or call roadside assistance.

  • Have a fully inflated spare tire in your car. Donut spares should be inflated to 60 PSI.
  • Practice (before the flat tire happens) using your car’s tools to change the tire. Identify tool shortages and acquire what is missing.

Prevent running out of gas: Fill the tank when the gauge says ¼ full. In winter, or in a rural area, keep the tank at least ½ full. Don’t wait until the fuel light comes on; you could get stranded or break down in traffic.

Manage running out of gas:

  • Stow an empty 1-gallon gas can so you can carry it to the nearest gas station. Never stow a container with gas in the car. Adding gas works best when the car is on level ground.

Prevent battery problems: Car batteries usually last 3 to 5 years. Hotter climates will shorten a battery’s life.

  • At first sign of weakness, have the battery checked, and replaced if weak.
  • Look for: illuminated battery light, slow engine crank, and dimming lights.
  • Keep clamps to battery terminals tight so they cannot be moved by hand.

Manage battery problems: If the car doesn’t start, most likely its battery is dead or its clamps are loose.

Stow 20 ft. long jumper cables in your trunk. Know how to use them correctly with another car’s alternator.

  • Stow a portable jumper battery. Charge it monthly and after each use.
  • Have a correctly-sized combination wrench to tighten loose battery clamps.

Prevent engine overheating: Having low coolant in the radiator is the most common cause – usually due to a leak, hot weather, and/or a malfunctioning radiator cooling fan.

  • Pay attention to signs, including temperature gauge’s reading over halfway from cold to hot, steam or water vapor coming out from the hood, or a sweet smell coming from the engine. Proceed right away to a mechanic!
  • Check engine coolant regularly. It should be above the ‘Minimal’ or ‘full’ line when the engine is cool, and at or just below the ‘Max’ line when the engine is hot. Stow a gallon of water in the car in case of an emergency.

Manage engine overheating: If you encounter any of the above signs:

  • Get to a safe location as soon as possible and turn off the engine.
  • Allow engine to cool down for at least 30 minutes before opening the hood. DO NOT open the radiator cap while the engine is hot because the system is highly pressurized.
  • Add water if coolant is low. Adding water, without antifreeze, can usually get you from roadside to a repair shop.
  • Before proceeding to a mechanic, turn off the air conditioner and turn on the heater.

Sources: Bridgestone Tires, “Roadside Survival: low-tech solutions to automobile breakdowns” by Walt Brinker http://www.roadsidesurvival.com/, AAA, and In Control Family Foundation

Correct air pressure

Correct air pressure in tires helps prevent blowouts. Check spare tire PSI also, as it is usually low.