"Service required." "Door ajar." "Objects are closer than they appear."
Your car does its best to tell you how to stay safe. But chances are, if it really could talk, it would share a few blunt words to help you take better care of it.
We bet these would make your car's list of Top-10 Don'ts:
- Don't forget to change my oil. Oil is an essential lubricant that lets metal safely press against metal (think pistons moving up and down inside cylinders). Without it, friction would create so much heat that surfaces would weld themselves together and your engine would seize. Dirty, gritty oil is certainly better than low oil, but it does accelerate engine wear since it's too thick to properly coat and lubricate engine parts. Follow the suggested oil-change schedule in your owner's manual. Years ago, every 3,000 miles was the rule, but improvements in oil chemistry and engine technology have stretched that interval considerably in many newer vehicles. Northwesterners appear to be pretty oil-savvy – 85% of respondents in a recent PEMCO Poll said they've personally checked their car's oil and 51% have changed it themselves.
- Don't ignore my "check engine" light. Unlike the "service required" light, which is like a friendly reminder, "check engine" can indicate something is seriously wrong – perhaps a malfunctioning catalytic converter that could overheat and cause a fire. If the light appears after a fill-up, you might check to see if the gas cap is loose. It can erroneously register as a "leak" in the emissions system. But if you tighten it (to the point of hearing a few clicks) and the light doesn't go out soon, don't put off a visit to your mechanic.
- Don't ignore my tire pressure. Low tire pressure, especially when a car is heavily loaded and traveling at highway speeds, can lead to a blowout. Low pressure also affects handling, wears out tires faster, and drags down gas mileage. Conversely, overinflated tires give a harsher ride and can suffer damage more easily when you hit a pothole. At least once a month, use a gauge to check your tire pressure after the car has been parked for a while, and be sure to check the spare, too. Often you'll find inflation specifications on a sticker on the driver-side door post.
- Don't idle me too long. Before the days of electronic fuel injectors, cars needed a few minutes to warm up on cold days to ensure their engines received the right air-fuel mix to avoid a stall. No more. Now, experts recommend only 30 seconds' warm up. Any longer just wastes fuel and contributes to air pollution.
- Don't idle me unattended. In both Washington and Oregon, it's illegal to leave a running car unattended. Drivers must stop the engine, remove the keys, and set the brake before walking away. Also, car thieves cruise neighborhoods looking for "puffers." They know that a lot of drivers fire up their chilly cars and go back inside for a cup of coffee.
- Don't leave my windows frosty. In a recent PEMCO poll, 24% of Portland drivers and 17% of Washington drivers admitted that they don't always finish scraping their windshields on frosty mornings. In both states, the law requires drivers to keep windshields clear of "any non-transparent material," which includes frost, ice, and snow.
- Don't leave the keys in when buying gas. A few seconds with the cashier is plenty of time for a thief to hop in and drive away. Also, lock your car while you're pumping so a "pump creeper" can't sneak up while you're distracted and snatch your unattended purse off the passenger's seat.
- Don't assume you always can rely on prompt roadside assistance for problems like a dead battery or flat tire. Knowing how to handle basic emergencies can ensure you're not stranded in unsafe circumstances. A PEMCO Poll shows a bit of a gender gap in readiness: 88% of men compared to 64% of women report they've used jumper cables, and 86% of men versus 44% of women say they've changed a flat tire.
- Don't forget tire chains or let my gas tank run low in winter. A PEMCO Poll shows many cars lack a complete emergency kit. For example, only 41% of respondents said they carry chains, 33% pack flares, and 20% toss in a shovel. And your gas tank? Keeping it full prevents condensation while also ensuring you'll have fuel if you're caught in a long, snowy commute or get stuck on the side of the road and need to run the engine for heat.
- Don't drive me on flooded roads. If you can't see the pavement under the water or it's rushing across the road, turn around. Just 12 inches of water is enough to float a car. Once a car has been submerged, it's truly never the same. Water compromises its computer systems (think about dunking your laptop in a bathtub), corrodes air-bag controllers, makes wiring brittle, and threatens mechanical systems.