A Summertime Checkup for the Car

Tire pressure being checked by a professional.

Did you know that this is National Tire Safety Week? To be honest, I didn’t either, until the folks at Goodyear were kind enough to send me a press release about it. The safety of our tires should be a year-round concern, but as summer travel season gets into full swing, making sure they’re up to snuff should be on every driver’s mind.

And for that matter, it’s probably a good time to make sure every part of the family car is ready for the road. I always notice an increase in the number of people trying to shape up at my local fitness club this time of year, as people want to look their best for the pool or the beach. How about spending a little time to make sure the car is able to make the journey in the first place.

Let’s start with those tires. Have you looked at them lately? Be honest. The fact is that most people never even think about the tires until one of them either has a nail sticking out of it in a really obvious spot or is out of air completely. Yes, today’s tires are amazing piece of engineering, lasting two or three times as long as the ones our parents drove on when they were taking us on vacation. But they’re still not maintenance free.

The days of the local gas station giving a complimentary inflation check are long gone for the most part, so it’s up to you to keep them properly inflated. A tire gauge is not very expensive, and a quick check of each tire doesn’t take long. If the task sounds like something you’d rather not do, most reputable tire dealers or repair shops will check them for free if they’re not too busy.

They’ll also check for unusual wear patterns, road damage or just plain old worn out tread. If you’re about to embark on a multi-day journey in your car, wouldn’t you rather buy tires from your neighborhood shop rather than a strange place out on the road? Make sure you have the pressure in the spare checked as well, just in case it’s called into service

A pre-vacation once-over should also include a thorough inspection under the hood. Not only the vital fluids, but the condition of the hoses and belts. Actually, with most modern car it’s not belts it’s belt (singular). While that’s a good thing in regards to simplicity, the single belt that runs all the accessories on the engine will definitely leave you stranded if it fails. Small cracks start forming after a few years, so if you’re still running the same belt your car left the factory with and you’ve finished the payment schedule, there’s a very good chance you need a new one.

The same goes for the radiator hoses. They tend to weaken from the inside out, so even though they may look fine on the surface, they could still be ready to fail if they’re several years old. Better to have them replaced now rather than take a chance that a garage in a remote area will have the right one on hand. (After you’ve arrived at said garage in a tow truck.)

Another simple thing that should be looked at under the hood is the windshield washer fluid. The fluid can evaporate over time and then won’t be there when you need it. Keep in mind that washers aren’t just a rainy season need. A swarm of insects on a hot day can make a mess of your windshield in the blink of an eye. A proper soapy solution (not just water) will help the wipers scrub them off quickly to restore visibility.

Cars nowadays will routinely last well beyond 100,000 miles. But even though the major components will hold up just fine, other parts can become worn and might need replacement. Shock absorbers or struts, suspension bushings, wheel bearings, brake hoses and other things are all subject to deterioration from miles and time put on them. Don’t fret if your mechanic is recommending replacement of these items – it’s usually much less expensive than buying a new car.

Finally, before you hit the road, be sure to have important items in the glove compartment. Besides registration and insurance cards, it’s probably a good idea to have the name and phone number of your regular mechanic handy. That way, if you do get sidetracked by a breakdown of some sort, a verbal second opinion is only a phone call away. A less-than-reputable rural mechanic is less likely to spot an easy mark if he knows you have a trusted technician on the other end of the line.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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