Consumer Reports

Car trouble can strand drivers who aren’t ready

Most of us don’t like surprises when it comes to our cars, especially the kind that leave us stranded on the highway in bad weather. The editors of Consumer Reports recently provided advice on how to avoid unwelcome surprises like blowouts and dead batteries, and suggested how to deal with them if they do happen.
1. Dead Battery: This is often the culprit when the engine won’t turn over or start. All batteries will weaken over time. Certain activities can leave the battery undercharged, like infrequent use, a lot of short trips or using multiple accessories when the headlights are on. Even forgetting to turn off a light or listening to the radio with the engine off can drain the juice out of your battery.
How to prevent it. Although the effect of a drained battery often shows up on cold mornings, it’s the high temperatures of summer that usually do the most damage. So a battery can fail at any time. Be sure to have the battery and alternator tested as part of an annual inspection.
2. Flat tire or blowout. Flats and blowouts can be caused by road hazards, a tire defect or lack of care, and can cause you to lose control of the vehicle. If you experience either of these, CR recommends taking a firm grip of the wheel and gently guiding the car off the road as soon as possible.
How to prevent it. Many tire problems result from underinflated tires that overheat, due to low tire pressure. Keep all tires, including the spare, properly inflated to the automaker’s recommended pressure by checking them monthly. Also, inspect the tire sidewalls for bulges or cracks.
3. Fluid Leak. An undetected leak in a critical system can be devastating, possibly resulting in a blown engine or transmission or even brake failure.
How to prevent it. Check the car’s fluid levels regularly, using your owner’s manual as a
guide. Look for leaks on the pavement where you park. Black drips are oil; green, orange or yellow are coolant; and brown or reddish oily drips can be transmission or brake fluid. Any of those can spell trouble and warrant a trip to the mechanic to inspect your car.
4. Worn out wipers or no fluid. Many accidents are a result of poor visibility. Often drivers don’t realize their wipers are shot or their washer tank is empty until they need them most.
How to prevent it. CR’s auto testers have found that wipers usually degrade in their first six months so it’s best to replace them twice a year.
5. Blown fuse. When a fuse goes, it can disable a critical electrical system, such as the headlights, defroster or antilock brake system, any of which could lead to an accident.
What to do. You can’t prevent an electrical problem, but a blown fuse should be the first thing you check if one happens. CR recommends carrying a selection of spare fuses and a fuse puller in the car.
6. Broken drive belt. It can disable the car’s water pump or alternator, leading to engine overheating and battery failure.
How to prevent it. CR advises periodic checks under the hood. If a belt has cracks or the rubber is fraying or feels brittle, it should be replaced. If there’s a lot of slack in the belt, the underside is shiny, or you hear squealing while driving, it should be adjusted or repaired.
7. Locked out. At best, it’s a minor annoyance; at worse, it’s a serious problem when you’re in an unsafe environment.
How to prevent it. Some carmakers provide a valet key or a plastic key for emergency use. If your spare key won’t fit in your purse or wallet, consider a magnetic box for $5 to $10, which you can hide beneath the car or behind the license plate.