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Keeping your wheels turning on summer roads requires only some common sense

By Jim Bray - a special TechnoFile rant
July 6, 2023

Now that summer is here and many folks are preparing for their vacation road trips, it might make sense to ensure your vehicle will get you where you want to go.

This might seem like a "duh" moment, but it's easy to forget to take a few seconds to give your vehicle the once over – twice, if necessary – to see that it's up to snuff and the chances are minimized that you won't get to your destination, let alone back again.

What can a motorist do without having to break the bank by heading over to your favourite mechanic's?

Well, wouldn't you know, the British site Road Angels (https://www.roadangelgroup.com), which says its raison d'etre is making "Britain's roads safer through educating and empowering motorists to make more informed decisions about their driving," has come up with a quick list of six things you can do – and if you decide to surf by their site and partake of their various offerings of dashcams, radar detectors, parking aids and the like (available on their site in various currencies including whatever pittance the Canadian dollar may be worth these days), they'd probably be even happier.

Meanwhile, here's what the Road Angels (as opposed to Road Apples, I imagine) recommend, with my comments added. It deals with basic maintenance – stuff so basic that even I could do it, and I'm about as tech-challenged as most people; heck, I can barely check the oil in my A4 thanks to its weird dipstick.

But I digress.

First up, they point out that "keeping an eye on oil levels and engine coolant throughout the sunny days will help ensure cars remain cool and prevent them from overheating." This is usually straightforward unless you have a weird dipstick and only requires a paper towel or two and an ability to read the scale on the dipstick.

Now, some cars don't have dipsticks and do the check electronically (I remember some Porsches were like this), so if you're poring over the engine compartment and the dipstick's location doesn't leap out at you (it's generally right on the engine and fairly obvious), you might have one of these vehicles. In doubt? Check your owner's manual.

Checking your other fluid levels should be straightforward. Don't open the top cover on your radiator when the engine is hot or you'll be in for a possibly painful and undoubtedly embarrassing display of coolant ejaculation. You shouldn't need to anyway, because most modern cars have plastic reservoirs under the hood that hold and display the levels of the various fluids, whether coolant, power steering or whatever. While you're checking one, you might as well take a boo at the others.

The reservoirs should have a scale on the side showing recommended maximum and minimum levels. Don't worry about it if the level is in the middle; just make a mental note to check it again later to ensure it's still full. And don't overfill.

Third, Road Angels notes that checking your tire pressures is also very important, not only for safety but for efficiency. A cheap tire pressure gauge will do the job, but be careful putting it on the tire inflation valve stem because you could end up just emptying the tire instead – and wouldn't that make you feel silly? I prefer a digital gauge with a big readout, because my eyes ain't what they used to be.

When purchasing such a beast, try to ensure it's easy to mount on the stem; I have one with a lovely digital readout but it's so difficult to actually stick onto the wheel that I end up going back to my old analogue one.

Here in Alberta, you can also go into pretty well any tire store and they'll check the pressures for you for free. This is a wonderful feature and I use it more often than I do my own gauges. It's also a nice way to meet your local tire store folk (many of whom also do vehicle repairs) and get a feel for them. Thanks to this, I'm moving some of my maintenance (wheel changeover from summer to winters and some basic maintenance like an oil change) to my new little friends at KalTire, who charge about half of what my usual mechanic does. And I've used them enough that I trust them. So far…

Fourth, the Road Angels suggest you check out your battery to make sure it has no leaks or cracks. You should be able to do this by sight. If in doubt, panic. Just kidding' if in doubt, get someone qualified to look at it for you – but also remember that person could use the opportunity to try selling you a new one.

Fifth, "with hundreds of bugs and flies hitting the windscreen, making sure the wipers are clean and the fluid is topped up, will ensure drivers have a clear view of the road ahead."

I agree with this completely and have to admit I'm more than a bit anal about windshield cleanliness. Ask my wife!

Getting bugs off can be a real pain in the buttocks, but some car washes offer a bug spray via wand that you can partake of before driving into the wash bay. There are also products you can buy that purport – and some actually work – to help clean those pesky bugs off. Heck, even a good washcloth soaked in water, combined with a bit of elbow grease, is better than nothing. For years I used Amway's LOC and it worked great; I also remember a service station in the West Kootenay of British Columbia that spiked its water/squeegee pail by the pump with LOC every summer for just such purposes.

I'm not sure I'm completely on board with their sixth tip, regarding fuel levels: "it's essential to keep an eye on the gauge and drivers should not rely on their usual estimations of when a trip to the petrol station is needed." I mean, well duh! If you're heading for the boonies and gas stations are few and far between, a little planning may be in order to ensure you don't reach your next fill up point running on fumes. Or not running at all…

This is just common sense and your gas gauge (not counting the "range left" readout, which may or may not be accurate but which is definitely not worth betting your trip on) will give you a close enough estimation.

Naturally, this doesn't apply to electric cars. If you're planning a road trip in an EV, better plan accordingly and don't trust the estimated range readout for a minute. Or you can buy a diesel generator and haul it behind you on a trailer. You may lose the smug emissions, but you may keep to your schedule.

It also pays to have some kind of a first aid and/or roadside assistance kit in the vehicle. I've never had to use mine, but I'm sure glad it's there!

That's it for quick, basic checks, and as Gary Digva, founder of Road Angel, said "carrying out these quick car maintenance checks regularly throughout the summer will help to prevent serious breakdowns. Many of us know that we should perform car checks more often than we actually do, but getting in the habit of quickly inspecting your vehicle can help stop breakdowns and car damage."

And it isn't onerous. "Quickly looking over your car only takes a couple of minutes out of your week but it often makes all the difference between breaking down or not," Digva said. I do all this stuff on our two vehicles and I'm an idiot when it comes to mechanical stuff (which is one reason why I became a writer!).

Sure, it can be a tad intimidating opening up that hood and staring at that big mass of plastic that hides all the nifty stuff underneath, but it shouldn't be. For one thing, everything you need to find under the hood won't be under that plastic top, so stay away from it; that path leads to darkness for the unwashed.

That said, a little common sense and attention to the task at hand and you should be just fine – and if you do it yourself you can save some bucks that will undoubtedly be required instead at the gas pump before your travels are done.

Happy motoring!

Copyright 2023 Jim Bray

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