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Your Car: Heading off Car Breakdowns

Most car trouble on the road is caused by a few easily avoided, low-tech factors.

Despite the hugely complicated nature of today's cars, it's still basic, Model A-era factors that cause most car troubles. AAA's Emergency Road Service statistics show that flat tires, battery problems, and lockouts together account for 50 percent of member calls for help.

That's good news, because a cheap and easy once-over of your car can go a long way toward taking care of the situations most likely to cause trouble, assuming you've been reasonably diligent about keeping to the maintenance schedule provided in your vehicle's owner's manual. Here's a checklist to go through a few days before taking off on a road trip:

Engine — Inspect all fluid levels. The obvious ones are motor oil, brake fluid, and coolant. But don't forget the automatic transmission, power steering, and windshield wiper reservoirs.

Look for cracked, frayed, or loose belts. Inspect the coolant hoses for cracks and bulges. Clean corroded battery terminals. Heat can be harder than cold on a battery; if yours is nearing the end of its warranty period (typically, five years or so), consider replacing it.

If you have doubts about the battery, have it tested.

Tires — Keep them inflated. Heat is a major tire killer and underinflation leads to greater heat buildup because the sidewalls flex more. Measure air pressure using your own high-quality gauge when tires are cool (don't forget the spare). The vehicle's owner's manual will give you the proper air pressure range. Look for cuts or bulges and make sure there's adequate tread (1/16 inch of tread—the distance between the top of Lincoln's head and the edge of a penny—is the least you should have). Uneven or rapid wear may indicate a mechanical problem, such as improper alignment or worn steering components. It's the kind of thing that only gets worse with time, so it's both safer and cheaper to fix now rather than later.

Brakes — Have them inspected.

Lights — Make sure they all work (including turn signals, flashers, and high beams) and that all lenses are clean and in good condition.

Air-conditioning — Test it before you need it. Even if it's working well, have the belt and lines inspected.

Windshield wipers — Time and pollution cause the rubber blades to deteriorate. Make sure the sprayer sprays, the wiper motor works, and the blades actually clean the glass.

How AAA can help

    * Approved Auto Repair—There are over 600 quality repair facilities in Northern California, Nevada, and Utah that have been inspected and approved by AAA technicians and that guarantee repairs for members. For the location of a facility near you, call (800) 645-4288.

     * Car Care Plus—Our one-stop shops can perform most maintenance and repair. Sacramento: 49 Bicentennial Circle, (916) 386-8561; Santa Clara: 2615 Keystone Ave., (408) 247-5405.

      * Diagnostic Services—Have your car inspected by our technicians at a AAA Car Care Plus facility or a AAA Diagnostic Clinic. Information: (800) 652-1158.

      * Battery Service—AAA can come to your vehicle, test its battery to verify that a replacement is needed, and, if it is, install a new battery—all at member prices (not available in all areas). Call (800) 222-4357.

      * CreditCard Key—Avoid the inconvenience of being locked out of your car by keeping a plastic CreditCard Key in your wallet. They're available for most cars, free, at any AAA district office in Northern California, Nevada, and Utah.

      * Emergency Road Service Available coast to coast, all day, every day. Call (800) 222-4357.

      * AAA/Verizon Wireless Program If your car leaves you stranded, a cell phone can be your best tool. We have joined with Verizon to provide a cell phone with one-touch access to Emergency Road Service. For information, call (800) 227-5038.

This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.