Winter Auto Guide: 7 Tips to Avoid Getting Stranded on the Side of the Highway this Winter
There isn’t anything more frustrating or worrisome than your car breaking down on the side of any road, regardless if it's a busy highway or a deserted backroad. You worry about what's wrong with it, how much it's going to cost you to fix, and why it seemingly up and stopped working without notice.
Most vehicles rarely just quit without warning. There are many signs that a breakdown is imminent, provided you know what to look for. Routine maintenance and pre-trip inspections will help you catch small problems before they have a chance to turn into big ones.
It may seem like a no-brainer to take a look at your vehicle before driving away, but for the most part, people take their cars for granted. They get in and go. Taking a few extra minutes to do a pre-trip inspection before you leave home can save you some pretty significant headaches.
Many of these tasks will take only seconds:
- Confirm your headlights, both low and high beams work.
- Ensure that your emergency brake is operational.
- Confirm your taillights work.
- Confirm all four of your turn signals work.
- Check to make sure wiper blades are in good condition and have normal function
- Glass — both windows and mirrors are in good condition, free from chips or cracks that can impair visibility.
- Double-check to make sure that you've got even the most basic roadside emergency kit, including booster cables, a blanket, some water, and a couple of granola bars.
- Make sure your brakes are functioning properly.
- Double-check to see that any car or booster seats for kids are installed correctly and that they're in good condition. You never know what kids can get up to while you're paying attention to the road.
- Confirm you have all your necessary paperwork, including registration, proof of insurance, and roadside assistance phone numbers. You'll save yourself a potentially expensive ticket if you get pulled over just by making sure you have these documents.
- Finally, when you get into the car, make sure yours and your passenger's seat belts are both functioning properly, without sticking or fraying.
Check Your Fluid Levels
There are a few places you'll need to look to see that your fluid levels are at an appropriate level. First, get down and make sure there are no puddles — black (engine oil), red (transmission fluid), blue (usually washer fluid), or green (coolant or antifreeze) underneath the car. Once you've confirmed that, it's time to pop the hood.
Locate the engine oil dipstick and pull it all the way out, wiping it clean on a paper towel or rag, and then push it all the way in again, and pull it back out. Take a look at the end of the dipstick. Make sure you can see the lines on the dipstick through the coating of oil and that it's not thick, goopy, and black.
While you've got the hood open, take a look at your coolant levels and your washer fluid levels. Getting stranded on a super muddy road without washer fluid can impede your vision and cause some serious safety issues.
Don't Skimp on your Regular Services
If you're checking your fluid levels regularly, this is probably something you aren't ignoring. Sticking to a regular auto maintenance schedule, including tire rotations, visual inspections, and oil changes. This will potentially catch any problems like timing belts (the belt that helps keep your engine parts moving properly) or fan belts wearing in one spot, for example.
Your owner's manual will tell you how often the manufacturer wants you to change these fluids. These tune-ups will also catch more severe wear and tear on the parts you can't see just by popping the hood.
360 Degree Walk Around
Take a quick spin around the car. Is there any damage you didn't know about before? Is there something small like a toy lying behind where you parked? Depending on what is left lying in the driveway, running it over could cause damage to the undercarriage of the car that could be avoided.
Are all the headlights and taillights covered? Your license plate with appropriate registrations and insurance still there (they can be a target for thieves, unfortunately).
Tires, Wheels, and Lug Nuts, Oh My!
While you're walking around the car itself, take special note of your tires. Look at the tread. The general rule of thumb is inserting a penny into the tread of your tire, Lincoln's' head down and facing you. If you can see all of his head, it's time to go tire shopping.
Give the lug nuts a quick check by hand. You should not be able to move them at all. While you're looking at your car's shoes, take a look at the mags too. Do they look scratched (a sign that someone hit a curb, potentially damaging the wheels or something else mechanical under there), warped, or are there any covers missing?
The other important thing to consider when it comes to your tires is what season the ones you've got on your car are designed for. If you live in California, you're not going to need anything more than All-Season tires. Still, much of the country needs to be seriously considering switching to Winter tires come the beginning of October, mid-month at the latest.
Something Smells Funny
When you're driving, do you get a whiff of anything funky? The most worrisome scent is something burning. It could be your brakes, the engine itself, or your electrical system, which depends on the specific notes in the smell. The only thing you need to worry about is if it smells strange, something not good is probably going on.
Check Engine Warning Lights
Sometimes, the check engine light can be an indication of something minor, like you didn't put the gas cap back on properly. Other times, it's indicative of a much larger problem. If you've got one or more lights on your dash that isn't supposed to be there, it's time to get in to see a mechanic as soon as you can.
Following a consistent routine of looking at your vehicle before you drive away can not only save you costly repairs, it can also prevent you from getting stranded somewhere you don't want to be and paying for towing services.