Car Troubles: The Big Four

The most common causes of car trouble on the road – and how you can avoid them.

While cars are a lot more complicated than they were just a few years ago, they also are more reliable. Even so, AAA’s Emergency Road Service (ERS) trucks keep busy answering calls from stranded motorists.

ERS keeps tabs on the reasons people call for help. So far, the complicated electronics and machinery beneath the hoods of today’s cars have yet to make a dent in the traditional reasons people call for roadside help. The top culprits are all Model-A-era maladies easily understood and avoided by anybody clever enough to know which end of the ignition key to insert, and where.

Here are the most common reasons for ERS calls, and how you can avoid them:

Flat tire.

Road hazards can destroy even a new tire. But old-time tire maintenance still is valuable in heading off trouble. It’s nothing you don’t already know, but here’s a reminder:

  • Regularly inspect each tire for proper inflation. This means using a gauge, as eyeballing side-wall bulge isn’t sufficiently precise. Don’t forget the spare; tires can lose air just sitting there, and flat spares are both common and frustrating. You’re likely to find the car maker’s suggestion for inflation pressure in the car’s owner manual or on a sticker in the glove box.

The tire manufacturer’s recommendation for maximum tire inflation is printed on the tire’s sidewall. Typically it’s about 35 pounds per square inch for passenger car tires. This is a maximum which should never be exceeded. Tire air pressure should always be measured while the tire is cold. Use your own high-quality gauge, as those on gas station air hoses may not be accurate.

  • Check the tires for cuts and bulges—these inevitably mean trouble ahead. Uneven wear also can be a problem. Rotating tires can even out the wear among all four; follow the rotation pattern and schedule suggested in the owner manual.
  • Replace tires with excessive tread wear.

Empty fuel tank.

People have been running out of fuel since at least the 1890s, when gas gauges consisted of wooden dipsticks.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist: When out on long, empty stretches of road, heed those road signs warning "Next fuel 89 miles." Even when close to home, pay attention to that fuel gauge, and make the occasional timely visit to a filling station.

Lockout.

Lockout is the fastest growing cause of Emergency Road Service calls. This is partly because modern car locks are so efficient. Not only can you lock all the doors at once on many cars, the locks are so good that everyone but thieves has a difficult time defeating them. And high-tech locks often also are high-fragility locks. Forget about the bent coat hanger as savior.

Prevention is simple and cheap:

  • Carry a spare key in your wallet or purse. Don’t keep it in a jacket pocket—jackets often are left in cars. And don’t try to hide it in a wheel well or beneath the floorboards. Give those thieves a little credit.

Speaking of credit, AAA members can get a free Credit Card Key. Bring your membership card and car door key to any district office, where a spare Credit Card Key can be made in less than a minute. The spare key is the size, shape, and thickness of a credit card, so will fit easily into a wallet or purse. Note that Credit Card Keys aren’t available for some high-security lock systems and some unusual vehicles.

  • Get into the habit of locking your car door with the key. This ensures you have it with you when the car is locked up.
  • Write down the key code number and keep it in your wallet or purse. A locksmith may be able to make a new key using the number. The key code number sometimes can be found on a sticker in the glove box, sometimes in the car’s owner manual, sometimes on a metal tag accompanying the key, or you can ask the dealer

Dead Battery.

People had been running out of gas for over a decade and having flat tires for nearly as long when Cadillac introduced the electric starter in the 1912 model year. As the hand crank gradually was phased out, battery problems came on strong.

Modern batteries require little maintenance, but over time they eventually become too weak to start the car. They also can be adversely affected by extremes of cold and heat.

  • "Low maintenance" batteries occasionally may need to be topped off with distilled water, while "maintenance free" batteries have sealed covers instead of filler caps, so you couldn’t top one off if you wanted to. This doesn’t mean they’re truly maintenance free, however. You should check regularly for loose, dirty, or corroded terminals and cables. These can drain power or prevent the battery from charging. Use a commercial cleaner or a mixture of baking soda and water with a wire brush to clean corroded terminals.
  • Since batteries pack less of a punch with age, be aware of the length of your battery’s guarantee. Five years is a common figure. While the battery may last well beyond its guarantee, it quite possibly will not and, even if still alive, may not be able to perform as it did when young. Replacement as the battery’s expected age limit arrives can be a helpful bit of preventive maintenance.
  • Try not to leave your lights on after you park.

This article was first published in March 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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