It was 2 a.m. when it happened. I had just stopped at a traffic light when I heard “clank, clank, clank.” It had died. My aging car’s engine had choked on its last breath.
The engine had completely run out of oil, its lifeblood. It would not start again without major surgery, and it was my fault.
My father had reminded me repeatedly to check the oil in my car because it was nine years old and drank a lot of the slick stuff. I guess I should have checked it just a little more often. But as a young woman in college, it wasn’t a priority for me. And with that final “clank,” it became too late to make it one.
If you’re a new driver, you should know a few things about your car so that you can avoid being stranded in the middle of the night as I was. By keeping certain tools and items in your car at all times, knowing how to jump-start a dead battery, how to check your car’s oil, what to do if you have a flat tire, and how to find a good mechanic, you’ll be on the road to becoming a safe and responsible driver.
Items to Carry in Your Car
Preparation includes know-how as well as a few essential items. You should never leave home without a spare tire, jack and lug wrench, and a can of inflatable tire sealant. A few other important items are an extra quart of oil, a few rags and a flashlight with fresh batteries.
A set of jumper cables can come in handy, too. It can be hard just to find someone who’ll give you a jump-start, so you don’t want to have to go through the trouble to find and borrow cables, too.
How to Jump-Start a Car
Using jumper cables can be dangerous, but it’s not difficult to do it safely if you know how. For a safe jump-start, follow these step-by-step instructions.
1. Place both cars in “park” or in neutral with their ignitions turned off.
2. Open both cars’ hoods and look for the positive terminals on both batteries. A positive terminal will have a plus (+) sign, the letters “pos,” or will be the larger of the two terminals.
3. Connect each of the red clips of the jumper cables to the positive terminals on each battery.
4. Connect one of the black clips to the negative battery terminal on the other person’s car and the other black clip to the unpainted non-aluminum metal surface on your car.
5. After it’s all hooked up, the other person should start his car.
6. Let it run for a minute, then try to start your car.
If it doesn’t start, give it at least five minutes and then try again. If your car doesn’t start after that, you’ll probably have to call a cab, a tow truck, or a friend. Check and Change Your Oil
It only takes a few minutes and a little effort to check the oil level in your car. Older cars tend to use more oil, so if you’re driving one you might want to check it once per week or every 1,000 miles.
The engine should be off when you check the oil. If you’ve just driven the car, wait five minutes or more for the engine to cool a little, and use a rag to protect your hands.
Checking your car’s oil involves nothing more than finding the dipstick (look in your owner’s manual for its location), removing it, wiping it clean, reinserting it and removing it again to see if the oil is between the “add” and “full” marks on the dipstick. Add some oil if the level is at or below “add.”
Have your car’s oil and oil filter changed every 3,000 to 3,500 miles or every three to six months, whichever comes first, and your engine will last twice as long. Oil gets old and dirty after a while and can harm your engine.
You can have your oil and filter changed quickly and economically. Several chains such as Jiffy Lube specialize in oil changes and usually can get you back on the road in half an hour or less for around $25.
How to Deal With Flat Tires
Flat tires can ruin your day even if you’re not rushing to get somewhere. But, if you have a membership in an organization like the American Automobile Association (AAA) and access to a phone, someone will be along to rescue you, usually in under 45 minutes. If not, you’ll need to change the tire yourself. Regardless, carry a spare tire in good condition.
If you’re not a weight lifter, you might want to prepare in advance for tire changing by making sure the lug nuts (those four nuts that keep your tires from falling off) aren’t “fused on” so that you’ll be able to remove them. Don’t loosen them too much. Your tires could roll off and cause a serious wreck. Have a tire professional check your lug nuts for the proper degree of tightness.
Lifting a heavy tire up onto the lug nuts can pose a serious problem for the “muscularly challenged.” To help with this, you can make a ramp out of a wooden crate that you can use to roll the heavy tire up and just push it into place.
You might also want to practice changing a tire in the safety of your own garage. This will prepare you for a roadside tire change and make you more confident of your tire-changing abilities.
If you have a flat in a place that’s dangerous to change a tire, and the puncture is very small, you can temporarily fix it with an aerosol inflator/sealer. There are several brands that you can pick up for under $10.
All you have to do is screw the can’s nozzle onto the tire stem, and the tire is inflated with air and a goop that seals the puncture temporarily. Service stations generally don’t like this, however, because a tire full of goop makes it difficult to locate any punctures. Plus, it’s messy. So use this fix only in the direst emergencies.
Find a Good Mechanic
It’s a good idea to scout out a good mechanic before you actually need him. The best way to find a reliable mechanic is by word of mouth. However, you can also look for shops with an AAA or ASE (The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) logo on display.
AAA-rated shops must give customers written estimates and offer a minimum warranty on parts and labor for 90 days or 4,000 miles. ASE certifies individual mechanics through tests given twice each year. An Independent Garage Owners Association (IGO) shop follows a certain code of ethics. If all else fails, the Better Business Bureau is always a good source for finding out about a certain shop in your area.
Regardless of the shop’s affiliations, you might want to personally look at it. A somewhat neat and orderly shop reflects the mechanics’ precise work. If it’s messy, you can expect the work on your car to be messy, too.
Knowing a few things about that piece of machinery that gets you from point A to point B will keep you from experiencing the premature death of your vehicle as I did as a young driver. Regular maintenance, including oil and filter changes, can lengthen the life of your car. And being prepared for a roadside emergency can make those situations much less stressful to deal with should they happen to you. Happy driving!