Each fall, drivers are reminded to get their vehicles ready for winter. But spring maintenance is equally important to keep cars, trucks and motorcycles running smoothly and safely as warmer temperatures arrive.
It’s no secret that extreme temperatures — both hot and cold — can increase the amount of wear and tear on vehicles and their various systems.
Whether vehicle maintenance is done at home or by a qualified mechanic, safety experts with the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center Driving Directorate, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others recommend vehicle checks each spring and fall to decrease the likelihood of breakdowns, blow-outs and maintenance-related problems on the road.
Make a checklist
Any spring vehicle-safety checklist should include tires, belts and hoses, wiper blades, cooling system, fluid levels, lights and air conditioning. Check the vehicle owner’s manual for information on settings, readings, replacement parts and other products specific to the vehicle’s make and model.
— Tire checks involve checking air pressure and tread wear. Maintaining correct tire pressure is a vitally important safety measure, and the NHTSA recommends checking it at least once a month to make sure tires are properly inflated. Use a reliable tire gauge, and only check tires when they are cold — meaning they haven’t been driven for at least three hours. The correct pressure is not the number listed on the tire itself, but on the label inside the driver’s door frame or in the vehicle owner’s manual. When inspecting tires for tread wear, the key measurement is 1/16 of an inch. Anything less than that and it’s time to replace the tires.
— Belts and hoses require a look under the hood. Make sure they are in good shape with no signs of blisters, cracks or cuts in the rubber. High summer temperatures accelerate the rate at which rubber belts and hoses degrade, so it’s best to replace them now if they show signs of obvious wear. Check all hose connections to make sure they’re secure.
— Wiper blades should be checked for wear on both sides. After the heavy toll imposed by winter storms and spring rains, windshield wipers are likely to be ragged from use and ready to be replaced. If they aren’t in good condition, invest in new ones.
— The cooling system is especially important on long summer road trips because it keeps the engine from overheating. Check coolant levels when the engine is cold, and consult the owner’s manual to see if it’s time to have the cooling system flushed and refilled.
— Fluid levels include the vehicle’s oil, brake, transmission, power steering, coolant and windshield washer fluids. If it’s time or even nearly time to have the oil changed, now would be a good time to do it. Make sure each reservoir is full, and have the vehicle serviced if there are any signs of fluid leakage.
— Lights include not only headlights, but also brake lights, turn signals, emergency flashers, interior lights and trailer lights. Ensure all lights on the vehicle are in working order. Towing a trailer? Be sure to check the trailer lights, including brake lights and turn signals. Failure of trailer light connections is a common problem and a serious safety hazard.
— Air conditioning should be checked now. Lack of air conditioning on a hot summer day can adversely affect people in poor health or who are sensitive to heat, such as children and seniors. If the air is not blowing cold, it’s a good idea to have the system repaired now, because emergency on-the-road repairs can be more costly than those planned in advance.
Make an emergency kit
Even a well-maintained vehicle can break down, so it’s advisable to put together an emergency roadside kit. Some suggested items include:
— A cell phone to call for help. Several companies now offer designated cell phones specifically for emergencies.
— A first-aid kit.
— A flashlight, flares and a white flag.
— Jumper cables.
— A jack and ground mat for changing a tire.
— Work gloves and a change of clothes.
— Basic repair tools, including duct tape for temporarily repairing a hose leak.
— A jug of water and paper towels for cleaning up.
— Nonperishable food, drinking water and medicines.
— Extra windshield washer fluid.
For more information about maintenance and other vehicle-safety guidelines, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration websites www.SaferCar.gov, www.nhtsa.gov/KeepingKidsSafe and the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center at https://safety.army.mil.
(Editor’s note: The Missouri Department of Transportation also provided information for this article. Learn more at www.modot.org/safety.)