Prevent car breakdowns

July 1, 2022 by PEMCO Insurance

How to prevent car breakdowns and what to do if it happens

Don’t let a breakdown spoil your summer road trip. Here’s how to beat five common causes of breakdowns and what to do if, despite your best efforts, you still find yourself stuck on the side of the road. 

What are the most common types of breakdowns?

Breakdowns can happen any time of year, but these are among the most common in the summer:

1.    Overheating. Summer temperatures and the added strain of towing boats or trailers or crossing mountain passes can push your engine to overheat, especially if you’re low on coolant. To prevent it, keep an eye on your coolant level to ensure it’s up to the full mark. 

If it’s been a while since you’ve had your cooling system inspected or flushed, your mechanic can verify that your radiator is leak-free and your pressure cap, hoses and belts are in good shape. They also can check that you have the correct mix of coolant (antifreeze) and water recommended for your vehicle.

If you find your car overheating (high reading on your temperature gauge or steam coming from under the hood), you may be able to limp to safety by turning on the heat full-blast. As miserable as that sounds on a hot day, it may displace enough heat from the engine to allow you to get to a repair shop. If the gauge is hitting the red zone, though, pull over in a safe location and call for a tow. Driving an overheated vehicle can cause serious engine damage.

Be careful when checking coolant levels. Never open the hood until the engine has cooled and don’t touch the radiator cap until both the engine and radiator are cool. The coolant is pressurized and could spray you with a scalding shower of antifreeze and steam. 

2.    Flat tires. Summer driving means construction zones and an increased risk of tire-damaging debris on the road. Keep an eye on your tire pressure gauge and manually check pressures once a month to ensure your tires are inflated to manufacturer-recommended levels. It’s best to check pressures when the tires are cool, first thing in the morning before you drive. 

Also, monitor tread wear. You can buy an inexpensive gauge to measure, but in a pinch, use a quarter. If you insert it between the tire treads and can’t see the top of Washington’s head, you have more than 4/32nd of an inch. Less than that, and your tires are ready for replacement (new tires have 10/32nd). They’re considered bald and dangerous at 2/32nd.

If you get a flat, decide whether you should change it yourself. Working on the side of the road is dangerous because of the risk of being hit by a passing motorist. We recommend calling for roadside assistance, whose technicians are better equipped to handle it safely. Consider carrying a product like Fix-a-Flat, an aerosol that can inflate your low tire and temporarily seal a small puncture long enough to get you to a repair shop.

3.    Dead batteries. It’s not just freezing winter temperatures that can sap your car’s battery. Scorching heat can take a toll, too. 

AAA recommends you inspect your battery for loose cables and corrosion at every oil change and test it annually if it’s more than three years old. Other experts say consider simply changing your battery every five years, especially if you live in an area with temperature extremes or you usually drive short distances, which makes it hard for your battery to recharge fully.

If your battery leaves you stranded, you can attempt to jumpstart it yourself or, our preferred choice, call for roadside assistance. Jumpstarting a car is dangerous for you, your car and people standing nearby if you don’t know what you’re doing. Flying sparks and battery acid (from exploding batteries, typically during jumpstarting) are significant causes of eye injuries in the United States, right up there with household chemicals and workshop or yard debris.

4.    Worn brakes. Your brakes
signal distress with sound, feel and even smell. Preventive brake maintenance can head off potentially catastrophic failure. Your mechanic can check your brake pads, calipers, rotors and fluid to ensure your car stops safely and predictably every time. They also may flush and fill your car’s brake hydraulic system following the schedule your manufacturer recommends.

If your brakes fail as you’re driving, shift to a lower gear to slow down. Pump the brakes to restore brake fluid. If that doesn’t work, gently pull your parking brake to stop, but be prepared – you may skid. 

5.    Lockouts or running out of fuel. While not technically breakdowns, both can leave you stranded. 

To prevent lockouts, hide a spare key in a magnetic holder somewhere on the car, like inside a tire well or behind the front license plate. Or, if it’s an option, subscribe to your vehicle’s online assistance service (for example, OnStar for General Motors cars). Operators can unlock your car remotely or your subscription may include an app that allows you to do it yourself from your phone.

To prevent running out of fuel, follow the “half-tank rule” all year long. Many commuters make it a habit to fill their tanks in winter as soon as the gauge registers half full. A full tank minimizes the risk of condensation forming (water in the tank causes stalling and failure to start) and keeps you from running out of fuel if you’re stuck idling in a weather-snarled backup. Keeping the tank full can save you from getting stranded any time of year!

What if my car breaks down anyway?

At the first sign of trouble:

•    turn on your emergency flashers
•    work your way to the road’s shoulder or, better yet, into a parking lot off the busy road
•    stay buckled up in the car and shut it off (if it hasn’t already died)
•    try restarting in a few minutes and drive to the nearest repair facility
•    call for a tow truck from the safety of your car if you’re unable to restart.

If your car dies in a lane, stay inside and buckled up. Call 9-1-1 to get help from a police officer.

Also, consider signing up for roadside assistance. As long as you have a cellphone, you won’t have to handle a breakdown alone.

PEMCO offers basic, low-cost towing and emergency roadside service as an add-on coverage to your policy. You get benefits like jumpstarting, tire changes, gas (if you run out) and emergency towing for about $10 per year, per vehicle, if you opt for $100 in towing reimbursement. You can add it if you have Bodily Injury and Comprehensive coverages on your cars. Call 800-GO-PEMCO or ask your local PEMCO agent for details.

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