Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Getting Your Car Ready for Fall & Winter Driving

Contributed by Norm Nyhuis, Consultant / Trainer, Evergreen Safety Council

Whether we like it or not, fall will soon be upon us, with the dreary rainy weather we North Westerners call “normal”. Our cars have probably served us well during the summer, carried us on our vacations, or just out for a brief respite from the daily routine. However as colder and wetter weather approaches, our vehicles need a check up to insure they are ready for the more rigorous demands of winter driving.

For the “Saturday Mechanic” or even for those of us who rely on someone else to maintain our cars, here’s a list to check to insure our driving safety.

Windshield wipers
Our wipers have sat there, in the sun, all summer long. They have been baked and have lost at least some flexibility, up to being completely brittle and potentially fused to the windshield glass. Give them a thorough check: are the wiper arms bent? Is there sufficient spring tension on the arms to keep the blades in contact with the glass at all times? If the blades are leaving streaks or skipping spots on their arc, they should be replaced. For the most mechanically disinclined of us, most parts stores will gladly install new wiper blades you purchase.

Part of summer driving usually means encountering road work, or sharing the road with loaded trucks that sometimes drop gravel or “kick up” rocks from the road. Are there nicks or chips in the glass? Most glass shops will fill those “dings” with a resin that makes the chip nearly invisible, and may prevent the chip from becoming a crack that would necessitate the replacement of the windshield. Cold weather, and the attendant contraction and expansion of the glass when heated by the defroster, tends to cause nicks to become cracks, that are both unsightly but could also impair your line of vision.

Rear view mirrors
Check the glass in the mirrors. They too are subject to collecting dings and chips, but even if the “mirror” itself is not damaged, the mirror may not hold the adjustment you need for a clear view behind you. Are the exterior mirrors mounted tightly? An inside mirror usually has a means of tightening the arm to hold it in the position you need. While you are checking, remove the extra stuff you have dangling from the mirror; at best they can be a visual distraction, at worst they are sometimes large enough to block a significant arc of your vision.

Windshield washers
Are the washer nozzles clear? If not, you can probably open them with a thin piece of wire. Is the washer reservoir both intact (not cracked, and cap not missing) and clean? The washer fluid tank can usually be removed and washed out, and of course refilled with clean washer fluid. For winter driving, always use an antifreeze washer fluid. This will not only keep the system functional, but may help remove the ice buildup on the windshield that may accumulate as you drive.

Many modern cars have defrosters that provide heat to clear the windshield nearly instantly – this is a great safety feature! But defrosters rely on ducting that carry the warm air to the windshield. At times the duct may drop loose from the connection that spreads the warm air to the windshield, or may have cracks due to age or other damage. Hold your hand on the defroster outlet; do you actually feel warm air? If not, it may take some mechanical help to troubleshoot the system. Don’t let yourself be a “peep-hole” driver, make sure your defroster is working properly.

Do they all work? Check both low and high beams. Check that all the other exterior lights are working too: turn signals, marker lights on the sides, license plate lights on the rear. Changing a bulb is not all that difficult on many cars, however make sure the bulb you use is the same part number as the one your are replacing. Just because it will fit the socket does not mean it is the right candlepower (is bright enough) for the application.

Turn signals
Do they flash at the correct speed, and at the same speed on both sides? If they flash on one side but the dash indicator stays steadily “on”, on the other side, it is usually a burned out bulb. Do your turn signals cancel after you straighten out the steering wheel? IF not a mechanic may be need to correct the problem. NO one likes to follow someone with their turn signals steadily “on”.

Rear window defroster
These were once an option, but now are generally standard equipment. They should clear the fog evenly across the window, a pattern of alternating foggy and clear stripes indicates one or more burned out heater wires. This often requires replacement of the window, but a chemical anti-fogging agent will make a good substitute. While you are applying the anti-fog chemical, a coat on the side windows is a great idea, too. Clear vision 360 degrees around you is best.

The unsung hero of driving safety, your tires need attention to both perform properly and give you the greatest longevity. Look in your car’s owner’s manual for the proper inflation. The maximum inflation on the sidewall of the tire is just that – a MAXIMUM inflation to carry a specified maximum load. If your tire is not so heavily loaded, maximum inflation may not be best. If your owner’s manual doesn’t specify inflation, check with the shop where you purchased your tires for their manufacturer’s recommendations for your specific car and the load you are carrying. Check to see if there is adequate tread depth, cuts, or other damage. 1/16th of an inch is the minimum legal allowable tread depth, but is wholly inadequate for slippery road conditions.

There should be no looseness, vibration or unusual noises as you steer, particularly on tight turns. Any of these symptoms may indicate worn parts or a need for service. Noise on a tight turn - on front wheel drive vehicles – may indicate a worn constant velocity universal joint.

Exhaust system
Rust out of your exhaust system components is not common today for two reasons: better materials are used for mufflers and exhaust pipes, and today’s engines and exhaust systems run at hotter operating temps. The higher temperatures cook out any accumulated moisture in the system, thus preventing premature rusting. However physical damage is still a problem. While driving with the car tightly closed due to colder conditions, any leaking of the exhaust could allow carbon monoxide to enter the passenger compartment. Generally today’s heater systems keep the “cabin” slightly pressurized to help prevent “CO” from getting in, but it’s best know there are no leaks.

You can learn a lot just by “petting” your tires. Look at your tires; uneven wear can sometimes be seen and the wear pattern tells what caused the uneven wear. Tread worn in the middle, but OK on the outside edges indicates chronic over inflation. The opposite – worn on the outside edges but OK in the middle – indicate under inflation. Feathering of the tread indicates alignment problems. Gently rub the palm of your hand across the tread; if it feels smooth in both directions it’s probably OK, if it feels smooth in one direction but “grabs” your hand in the opposite direction, improper alignment, probably incorrect “Toe-in” is indicated. “Cupping” of the tread – a series of hills and valleys, usually on the outside edge - indicates worn shock absorbers, or other loose suspension parts. Here again, a good shop can tell you what the problem is, and the prescribed correction.

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