Monthly Archives: December 2010

Safe Driving in Snow and Ice!

Few things are as beautiful as the first snowfall—suddenly the drab, leafless trees are transformed by a coating of fresh powder; a mundane street becomes a wondrous new world. Unfortunately, driving conditions are also transformed by winter weather, making even the most familiar routes extremely treacherous. It’s no surprise that snow and ice are both among the top twenty-five causes of car accidents in the US. However, with experience, preparation, and patience, you can feel relatively safe in most winter conditions.

Having grown up in a northern state, I remember that my parents insisted I learn to drive twice: first, in the summer, when the roads were clear; then again, in the winter, when the first snow fell. The car felt completely different in the winter, and I had to recalibrate my steering, braking, and sense of speed, as well as my sense of space, since the roads were significantly narrowed by snow banks. My first piece of advice, then, for those who may be acclimating to a new winter driving climate is: practice. Don’t plan to travel much during your first snowstorm. Instead, have a friend take you to a parking lot or similar open stretch of pavement where you can practice snow driving in a safe environment. Wait until you’ve a got a bit more of a feel for how your car will handle in snow before heading out on the frozen road.

As the fall gets colder, start making preparations for the winter season. First, get your car serviced before the first snow storm. Check the lights, brakes, heating and defrost systems, antifreeze level, and other basics. This is a good time to repair minor chips in the windshield as well, as these can expand in winter weather. It may be a good idea to coat your windshield with a water repellant; this will help with visibility when driving in rain and snow.

If you live in an area that experiences severe winter conditions, you may want to invest in snow tires or chains. Snow tires are a special tire made of a slightly softer rubber, making them more flexible in winter, and with smaller tread grooves. Some areas that experience severe weather may actually require that snow tires be fitted in winter. Snow chains are just what they sound like: chains that fit over one’s wheels to improve traction on very snowy or icy surfaces. These are used in more extreme snow conditions, as snow chains can’t be used on dry roads and limit one’s speed to no more than 30 mph. In areas with heavy snow, you may also want to install heavy-duty wiper blades and/or mud guards and flaps, which will help to keep salt from the roads from corroding your car. Finally, cold weather can decrease your tire pressure, so make sure you keep checking your tires as the temperature drops.

In addition to making sure one’s car is in good shape, it’s also a good idea to have the necessary supplies on hand. Before the start of winter, make sure your car contains a spare tire, shovel, scraper, jumper cables, and salt, cat litter, or gravel (for creating traction on particularly slippery roads.) Creating an emergency kit for your car, which will contain first aid supplies, matches, flares, and other similar necessities, may also be a good idea. Make sure to store these items in a water proof container.

Once you’re ready to head out on the road, proceed with caution! Snow and ice can be deceptive. First of all, you may not notice ice on the road, particular if it is slick “black ice.” The sun’s glare can also give ice the appearance of water on the road, so drive slowly when approaching what appears to be a wet surface in cold weather. Bridges, infrequently used streets, and shaded areas also tend to freeze first and stay frozen longer, so approach these areas with extra caution.

For this reason, make sure you are always looking ahead in winter weather, so as to be aware of hazards that may be approaching. This also means keeping a good distance between you and the car ahead of you. Following in the tracks of cars ahead is a good way to access slightly “drier” bits of pavement during bad conditions; however, remember that it’s much more difficult to stop quickly on snow and ice, so you need to give yourself and other cars plenty of space. This includes snow plows and sand trucks. Remember that these vehicles are your friends, even if they are slow! Don’t try to pass a plow, as plow trucks often have poor visibility; besides, the road behind a plow is most likely much safer than the road in front of it! Give yourself extra time to reach your destination so that you aren’t tempted to rush in winter weather.

As in most treacherous driving conditions, avoid sudden movements. Try to steer smoothly and brake gently, especially before you enter a curve or turn. Braking suddenly or over-steering can cause a skid. Make sure you review tips on dealing with spins and skids before heading out, as well.  Avoid using overdrive or cruise control, but do use lower gears if climbing hills in the snow. Turn on your low beams to increase your visibility; if your wipers are on, your lights should probably be on too. In real blizzard weather, you may want to use your emergency flashers as well.

Above all, drive slowly! Conditions can change very quickly in the winter, especially with the onset of a bad storm. Be aware of what is happening outside your car and how your car reacts. Then, adjust accordingly. Err on the side of caution. Being late is annoying, but it isn’t life threatening.

Getting stuck in the snow can be a problem, especially if you make the mistake of backing into a snow bank (not that I’ve ever done that!). Since we’re now heading into warmer months, I’ll leave you in suspense for a while, as I’ll deal with being stuck in sand, mud, and snow in a later entry. Until then, try not to drive into a sand pit, swamp, or snow bank!

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about defensive driving and business driver safety.

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What To Do If Your Car Catches Fire

Although not the most common driving emergency, fire is certainly one of the scariest and potentially one of the most dangerous. In 2004, the American Automobile Association reported 266,000 car fires, which resulted in 520 deaths. It’s interesting to note that 75% of these fires were caused by poor maintenance rather than collisions. With this in mind, let’s begin by discussing how to prevent fires.

Preventing a fire
First, have your car serviced regularly according to the schedule recommended by its manufacturer. When adding oil, use a funnel and check carefully for spills, as spilled or leaking oil can start a fire under the hood. If you have a gas station attendant add oil, check to make sure that the cap is replaced securely. It may sound pedantic, but mistakes happen; a missing cap could easily result in a fire. Make sure that checks of the electrical and fuel systems—the two most common causes of fires—are included in your service schedule. If you notice that fuses blow repeatedly, make sure to have this problem checked; it could indicate a more serious electrical issue.

Responding to a fire

While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, sometimes the cure is necessary. If you notice smoke, fire, or a burning smell while driving, stop immediately. While in many instances smoke will not actually be the result of a fire, it nonetheless indicates a serious problem. Also pay attention to your gauges while driving; if the car begins to overheat, pull over and allow the engine to cool before more serious problems develop.

Stop as soon as you notice a problem and immediately turn off the car. If possible, pull over in a safe place first; however, driving will provide additional air to the fire, fanning the flames. If there is a large amount of smoke or you can actually see the fire, stop where you are. Other cars will go out of their way to avoid a burning car.

Then, get all passengers out of the car and make sure everyone moves far away from the vehicle. Car explosions are rare; the explosions you see in movies are triggered by explosives, not by an exploding gas tank. Still, they can happen. Additionally, burning oil and plastics give off toxic fumes. Make sure you have moved far enough away so as not to inhale these. Warn others near you or passing by to give the car a wide berth.

Next, if there is a fire, call 911. If not sure, err on the side of caution. It is better to be a bit embarrassed than to place yourselves and others in serious danger.

Putting out the fire

First, remember that it is more important to save lives than to save your car. Make your own safety and the safety of your passengers your priority. Only try to put out the fire if you have the necessary equipment, skill, and knowledge to do so safely. This will be more effective if the fire is small; if it is already large by the time your escape the car, it’s better to call 911.

If you are concerned about car fires, you can prepare by installing a fire extinguisher in your car. This should be a class ABC extinguisher (meaning it can put out any kind of fire) and should weigh at least five pounds. Make sure this extinguisher is within reach of the driver’s seat (i.e. somewhere in the passenger compartment) and that you know how to use it.

If you can, grab the extinguisher as you exit the car. If the fire is under the hood, pop the hood but do not open it fully, as the sudden influx of air could turn a small fire into a big one. Spray through the opening with the fire extinguisher. If inside the car, leave one door open and spray accordingly. If the fire is near the rear of the car, i.e. close to the gas tank, move away from the car quickly and warn others to do the same.

Finally, remember that fire damage is covered by comprehensive insurance policies. Because assessing fires can be a lengthy process, make sure to notify your insurance company of the fire as soon as possible.

The most important thing is to remain calm, think quickly and clearly, and put people before possessions. Here’s a brief recap of the steps to take:

1. Stop.
2. Turn off the car.
3. Get everyone out of the car.
4. Move far away from the car and warn others.
5. Call 911 to alert the fire department.
6. If the fire is small and there is an extinguisher to hand, consider attempting to put out the fire. Err on the side of caution when making this judgement.

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about defensive driving and business driver safety.

How to Find a Good Mechanic

In many of my previous entries, I’ve written at length about the complex workings of your car and the many problems that can arise, from minor glitches to serious setbacks. Throughout these entries, I’ve emphasized the importance of having a trusted mechanic that you can turn to should problems arise. Now, it’s time to discuss how you can go about finding said trusted and reliable mechanic (if you aren’t lucky enough to have found such a mechanic already.)

In terms of trustworthiness, car mechanics certainly don’t have the best reputation. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t f reliable and honest mechanics out there. If you’ve read my various entries on how cars work, you’ll know that even the most basic car is a very complicated and ingenious machine. The best mechanics are extremely knowledgeable and skilled professionals with a passion for their work. As you begin your search for a mechanic, look, above all, for someone who seems to enjoy and take pride in his work.

WHERE TO BEGIN
First of all, don’t wait until you have a problem to start looking for a mechanic. You’ll be under pressure to find one quickly and then will have to trust a serious to repair to someone you haven’t yet established a relationship with. Instead, try taking your car to a mechanic you are considering for a routine service, such as an oil change, and see how you feel about the service you receive. Make sure to read your owner’s manual and be familiar with the suggested service schedule, so that you know when you should be taking your car in. When you’re ready to begin the search for your new mechanic, you should take the following steps, each of which I’ll discuss in detail below:

1. Compile a list of reputable potential mechanics in your area.

2. Visit and evaluate the mechanics on your list.

3. Choose the shop that impressed you the most and take your car for an oil change. If satisfied, become a regular customer. If not, wait until your next service is due and try a different shop.

4. Build a relationship with your mechanic.

Note that large chains and dealerships are often more expensive than local mechanics. Additionally, you will be more likely to develop a strong relationship with a smaller, local shop, since maintaining a strong reputation and lasting customer relationships are very important for the survival of a small shop. If you take the time to find a local mechanic who seems trustworthy and reliable, you will save yourself money and hassle in the long run.

FINDING A MECHANIC

So, you’ve decided to find a new mechanic. Where do you begin? First, compile a list of prospective mechanics. Word of mouth is often one of the best sources of information. Ask friends, relatives, and neighbors in your area where they go to get their cars serviced. In particular, ask anyone you know who has a car that is similar to yours, as many mechanics will specialize in a particular kind of car.

There are a number of online sources that may be useful to you. NPR has a great car show, called Car Talk; check it out on the radio or via podcast if you can! The Car Talk website has a feature called the Mechan-X files, where they keep a database of mechanics. These mechanics are ranked in different categories (cost, efficiency, etc.) You can search by zip code and for different attributes; you’ll also be able to read reviews posted by visitors to the site, all at cartalk.cars.com/content/mechx/

Call the Better Business Bureau (or check out their website) to look for recommended mechanics or see if complaints have been filed against any mechanics you are considering. You may also want to look to the National Institute for Automotive Excellence (www.asecert.org) or the American Automobile Association for further advice (www.aaa.org).

Continue to ask around. Check with local auto clubs, particularly if you have a specialty car. You could also ask the local police where they have their fleet serviced. Finally, try calling your dealer’s wholesale parts department. This is the department at your dealership that sells parts to independent mechanics (avoid the department which supplies parts to the dealership’s own mechanics). Mechanics who buy their parts directly from the dealer are likely more concerned with quality than cost. Ask the parts department which mechanics frequently buy from them; they will likely be happy to recommend some of their best customers.

EVALUATING A MECHANIC

Once you’ve compiled a list of mechanics, start checking out their shops. Remember that, while you may not be an expert on cars, you do have basic knowledge about how a good business should be run and an intuitive sense of people. Trust your gut instinct about the place and the people who work there.

First, take a look at the shop and its yard. What kinds of vehicles are there? Are some similar to your car? Are the yard and shop clean and well maintained? Are the mechanics’ uniforms similarly well maintained? Are the waiting room and bathroom clean and pleasant?

These may seem like superficial questions. However, a shop that takes pride in its appearance will be more likely to take pride in its work as well. While a certain amount of grime is expected in this trade, a really slovenly shop probably isn’t a good sign.

Next, look for accreditation, both AAA and ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence). While ASE training doesn’t guarantee great service, it’s a good sign that the mechanics and the shop are committed to providing quality service and take pride in their work. You can see on each certificate what areas a mechanic has trained in and when. The ASE requires that those who participate in its programs keep these certifications up to date.

Ask about the shop’s policies. What kind of warranty is on offer? Does the warranty cover parts and labor? A great warranty will last for six months; 90 days is also acceptable. A 30-day warranty isn’t a good sign. Also ask about the prices; remember, though, that the cheapest shop isn’t necessarily reliable, but the most expensive shop may not be the best. You may also want to test the reliability of the shop’s pricing system. Call prospective shops and ask for a quote for a particular service. Two days later, have a friend call for the same quote. Are they the same? You may be surprised to find that some shops don’t have regular pricing schemes.

Don’t be afraid to ask the service writer—basically, the customer service representative—for the names of customers you could call for references. The staff should be friendly and willing to answer questions; if you don’t feel comfortable at a particular place, look elsewhere.

Finally, ask to take a look inside the garage itself. Notice the size of the mechanics’ tool boxes. Experienced and committed mechanics accumulate vast amounts of expensive and specialized tools. A large toolbox (roughly the size of a refrigerator or larger) indicates a mechanic has a great deal of experience.

AT THE SHOP

Once you’ve identified a shop that looks promising, take your car in for a “test” service, such as an oil change.

When you arrive at the shop, you will speak first with a service writer, unless the shop is very small. The service writer is, first and foremost, a salesman. He or she communicates with the mechanic and works to ensure the shop turns a profit, which is necessary for the shop to survive. Don’t be intimidated by this, and don’t let the service writer sell you services you don’t need immediately. Stay focused on what you came in for and insist, politely, that the mechanics stick to this service, noting any potential problems as they do so. You can discuss these other issues after the initial service is complete.

Make sure to also ask for a full explanation of what will be done. For example, different shops provide different arrays of services under the heading of a “brake job.” Ask questions so that you understand what is going on.

If the service writer does inform you that another issue has been encountered, make sure to be specific about the nature and extent of the problem. For example, the service writer may tell you that a pump “needs to be replaced.” Be clear about what “needs” means: has the pump failed? Does it have a flaw? Is it just very old? Establish what actually must be done and what could wait until later.

If you are having parts replaced, ask to have the old parts returned to you. You should also clarify whether the parts will be new or refurbished; new parts are, well, new, but refurbished parts may be cheaper. A great mechanic will give you different options and explain the pros and cons of each, if possible.

Also ask the service writer to show you what is wrong with the car and where work needs to be done. Talk to your mechanic as well. Take an interest in your car, how it works, and what is going wrong. Both mechanic and service writer should be willing to answer all your questions. A mechanic who is willing to take the time to educate his customers about their cars cares about his work and is passionate about his profession—and will likely do a good job taking care of your car.

If you have the time and inclination, you could also ask to watch the work being done. That way, you will gain a first-hand understanding of exactly what is going on.

Once the car is repaired, you may want to ask to take it for a brief test drive before paying, to make sure the problem is, in fact, fixed. Finally, take the time to look over your bill before paying. Make sure you know what each item on the bill is and don’t be afraid to ask. If something doesn’t look right to you, discuss it with the service writer; be polite but firm. Mechanics have been known to pad bills with extraneous items, assuming the customer won’t understand the technical language. Ask questions until you DO understand this language and avoid paying unnecessary charges.

BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR MECHANIC

Once you’ve found a mechanic whom you think is competent, reliable, and honest, become a loyal customer! A great mechanic is a rare and valuable asset who can greatly prolong the life of your car. These people are very skilled professionals who have to master a lot of complex and technical information. While car trouble can be frustrating and stressful, always be patient and respectful and take the time to build a strong relationship with your mechanic.

First of all, spread the word, both to your friends and through online reviews. You’ll be doing your mechanic a good turn to repay the great service he or she has given you. Also try to keep your car in good repair and have it serviced regularly, rather than waiting until a major problem arises and then panicking.

When you take your car for repairs or service, make sure to be as specific as you can about what seems to be going wrong. Communicate with your mechanic, and, once you have a relationship established, trust him if he tells you that major repairs need to be done. Try to avoid becoming defensive or hostile in such a situation. You should always bring your car in with at least ¼ tank of gas. If the mechanic needs to run your car for diagnostic purposes, not having enough gas can be very frustrating. Finally, if you drop off your car in the mornings, think about bringing donuts, muffins, or another breakfast food. A little kindness like this can go a long way in improving your relationship with your mechanic.

Be honest with your mechanic—you expect him to be honest with you! Let him or her know if you’ve had your car serviced elsewhere, or if you have tried to repair something yourself (even if you are embarrassed that this has gone horribly wrong!) He’ll find out sooner or later anyway.

Be reasonable in what you expect from your mechanic. You know the saying—cheap, fast, or good: you can have any two but never all three. Don’t expect miracles! Also, give your mechanic the benefit of the doubt. Cars are complex systems, and mistakes do happen. If a repair doesn’t fix a problem or causes a new problem, take the car back to the shop immediately and explain, politely, what you have noticed. A good shop will care about their reputation and will try to fix their mistake.

Finally, if you are very pleased with the service you receive, take the time to express your thanks in a written note to your mechanic’s boss, likely the service manager. First, writing a note indicates that you have gone out of your way to praise exceptional service. Next, your mechanic will likely see the note and could get a bonus for providing great service. Whatever the outcome, this is another small act of kindness that will help you to build a good relationship with your new mechanic.

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!
Check out these sites for more information about defensive driving and business driver safety.