Now that the sun once again dominates the sky and warm breezes beguile us with the airborne aromas of blooming trees and spring flowers, it’s only natural to spend more time in the car, enjoying the open road on day trips, weekend getaways or longer vacations.
All of these behind-the-wheel adventures mean just one thing—it’s time to get your car ready for road trip fun! You’ve probably already given your car a bath and even waxed it to a glossy shine. But don’t hit the road just yet; there are a slew of safety issues that you should check over each and every spring, issues that can be costly (and even dangerous) if neglected or simply overlooked.
Bad Brake Lines — Because they’re exposed beneath the vehicle, brake lines are vulnerable to rust and breakage. And unlike some other brake problems, damaged brake lines don’t give telltale signs such as squealing or grinding—when they break, the results can be both sudden and catastrophic. Look for brake fluid beneath the vehicle, especially behind the wheels, and if you spot any areas of rust, have a mechanic inspect the lines as soon as possible.
Missing Air Bags — You wouldn’t think that this would be a thing, but oddly enough the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that nearly one in five fatal accidents involves cars with missing air bags. If you drive a used car, and if it shows any sign of damage caused by the previous owner, have your mechanic inspect the car for signs of prior air-bag deployment.
Bad Bumpers — If you’ve had any type of collision—even a very minor bump—check that the bumper is OK. Most modern bumpers use a dense foam material to absorb impact, but they only work once. Even if they show no signs from the outside, the underlying structure may be compressed, meaning that the next impact could cause greater injury and/or damage. Have a mechanic or body shop check it out.
Hazed Headlights — Scars, scratches and yellowing of your car’s headlight lenses can reduce your visibility and increase the dangers of driving at night or in bad weather. If the lenses are yellowed, try polishing them with a headlight lens restoration kit available at most auto parts stores. If the damage is more severe, have the lenses replaced.
Sub-Par Steering/Suspension — If your car’s handling or ride feels sloppy, loose, rough or unresponsive, critical steering or suspension parts may be to blame. Have your dealer’s service department inspect these systems and replace any worn bits.
Weak Batteries — Even if your battery is capable of turning over your car’s engine, it may be on the verge of failure. Have a load test done to the battery to measure the battery’s ability to perform under load (such as when you start the car). Most auto parts stores or dealerships will be happy to do this test for free.
Winter Critters — During cold weather, small animals such as squirrels, chipmunks and mice will seek shelter in the strangest places, and your car has some mighty comfortable nooks and crannies. Especially if your car has sat for an extended period of time, check for stashes of leaves, twigs, seeds or nuts under the hood, in the air vents or in the air cleaner assembly. If you find any evidence of animal residency, check your car’s wiring, hoses and insulation for signs of chewing or other damage.
Poor Pressure — If your vehicle’s tires are not properly inflated, they’re prone to blowouts, can make the vehicle harder to control, and at a minimum will lower your vehicle’s gas mileage. Use a good-quality tire gauge to check the air pressure in each tire.
Crummy Cooling — Responsible for regulating your vehicle’s engine temperature, the cooling system is vital for proper engine operation—an overheated engine can leave you stranded on the side of the road. Check the cooling system’s hoses to make sure they’re still pliable; if they feel hard or brittle, have them replaced before they fail.
Bad Belts — They’re not a part you often think about, but when a drive belt or the serpentine belt fails, it’s bad news. If a belt fails, you could lose everything from the power steering (which results in a hard-to-steer vehicle) to the water pump (which causes the vehicle to overheat) to the alternator (which will cause the engine to stall). When you go in for the first springtime oil change, have the technician inspect the belts. If any wear is discovered, have the offending belt replaced.
Interestingly enough, these are also great items to check when you’re inspecting a used car you might be interested in purchasing. By doing so, you’ll gain peace of mind every time you hit the road, be it this spring or next winter.