Would YOUR Car Pass the Safety Checklist?

Many of us take for granted that our cars will start for us in the morning and get us to where we need to go. Without regular car maintenance, however, this reliability won't last long. The potential effects of not regularly maintaining your car include reductions in vehicle performance, highway safety and air quality, in addition to added repair costs.

To encourage awareness of the need for regular car maintenance, the Car Care Council annually promotes car care months in April and October. Volunteers from across the country conduct inspection events and return the inspection forms to the Car Care Council for analysis. Not surprisingly, results from 722 cars tested in 12 states showed an 80% failure rate in 2008 for at least one part or system. That's 8 out of 10 cars failing at least one portion of the car inspection!

What Components Failed Car Inspections?

Statistics from the inspections show the need to educate consumers on the importance of car maintenance and repair. What follows is a sampling of the percentage of cars failing each part of the inspection process during the most recent Car Care Council's testing.

Lubricants and Fluids - Based on the study, here are the failure percentages for auto lubricants and fluids:

Engine Oil - 32%
Washer Fluid - 23%
Coolant (Flush) - 21%
Transmission Fluid - 17%
Power Steering Fluid - 15%
Brake Fluid - 14%

Low fluid levels can affect the performance of your car, introduce safety issues and cause costly damage to the internal parts of your car. But, overfull and dirty fluids can also cause problems.

One way to troubleshoot leaks that you may find on your driveway or garage floor that could be causing problems with your car's lubricants and fluid levels is to look at the color. If you find discharge, check the color against the following guidelines to determine where your car may have a problem.

Bright Green Fluid: Radiator coolant (can also be orange, purple or red on later model cars). This may be leaking from the radiator, from the expansion/overflow tank or from one of the many coolant hoses on your car. Coolant normally has a sickeningly sweet smell, especially when hot, and will leave a crusty trail as it dries, helping you to find the original leak point.

Light or Dark Brown Fluid: Engine oil (light brown if you change your oil often; dark if you don't). This could be leaking from an improperly sealed or tightened oil filter, the oil pan, the valve cover or any number of oil seals on the engine. Oil will have a burnt smell.

Bright Blue Fluid: Windshield washer fluid. This could be coming from the washer fluid reservoir or from the hoses leading to/from it. There is usually little or no odor since it is mainly water.

Light Brown Fluid: If there is also a strong odor of rotten eggs, this is gear lube or what is referred to as 90 weight oil due to its thickness. It may be leaking from the rear axle center section, differential or the manual transmission front or rear seals.

Red Fluid: Automatic transmission or power steering fluid. Normally, this has very little odor unless burned but check for drips from the power steering pump, steering gear or rack, hydraulic hoses from the reservoir to the pump or rack, or from the front or rear seals on an automatic transmission.

Clear Fluid: Power steering fluid or water from the evaporator drain on the A/C unit. Check the feel of the fluid. Power steering or brake fluid will be oily with a slight oil smell. A/C drain water will have little or no smell and will evaporate quickly. For power steering fluid leaks, see "Red Fluid" above; for brake fluid, see "Light Yellow Fluid" below.

Light Yellow or Dark Muddy Brown Fluid: It's very important to change your brake fluid annually. It's clear to light yellow when new but as it absorbs water, the fluid becomes a dark, muddy brown. Brake fluid leaks can be from the reservoir, ABS control valves, or any of the metal or rubber lines between master cylinder and the wheel cylinders or calipers. Brake fluid is extremely corrosive and must be cleaned off paint or rubber immediately to avoid damage.

Amber Fluid: Gasoline. There will be a distinct odor. Fuel leaks can be difficult to find because fuel evaporates quickly. Leaks can occur at any of the hose or metal line connections between the gas tank and the engine compartment. In particular, check the fuel filter lines and fuel lines connecting to the fuel injectors or carburetor as fuel leaks in the engine compartment can caues a fire due to the heat of the exhaust system. Over time, moisture in the gas tank can cause rust and the tank may develop a pinhole. Fuel leaks at the tank will normally require removal of the tank for repair.

For more information on checking fluids and other monthly maintenance tips, see Perform Monthly Car Maintenance & Keep Auto Repair Costs Way Down.

Windshield Wipers - Based on the study, 15% of front windshield wipers and 10% of rear wipers failed.

Windshield wipers are a key safety feature for road visibility, but are often overlooked until you go to use them and they don't work. Wiper blades should be checked periodically and replaced every six months. You should consider keeping an extra set of wiper blades in your car just in case - particularly during the rainy season and winter months.

For more information on your car's windshield wipers, see Replacing Wiper Blades Regularly Saves Lives & Windshields and Bosch Icon Wiper Blades Provide Cleanest Windshields Ever.

Lighting - Lights of various kinds affect your ability to see what's in front of you and allow others to see you and determine your intentions. They also tell you what's happening with the operation of your car (dashboard lights).

Because lighting directly affects your safety and that of the cars around you, it's surprising to see the following failure rates in various lighting categories:

License Plate Lights - 10%
Brake Lights - 9%
Backup Lights - 3%
Side Marker Lights - 3%
Turn Signal Lights - 3%
Parking Lights/Tail Lights - 3%
Dash Indicator Lights - 2%

Automotive lighting is a way of communicating among drivers and it's vital to any properly functioning car. Lights are also a key safety feature for road visibility - not just helping you see the road better, but for other drivers to see you too. It's easy to see that taking a few minutes to check that all of your lights are operational is well worth the effort.

Engine & Safety-Related Parts - Falling into the failure category of parts that could cause engine reliability or safety problems are the following:

Air Filter - 18%
Belts - 18%
Check Engine Light - 9%
PCV Filter - 7%
Hoses - 7%
Radiator Cooling Fan(s) - 2%
Horn - 2%
Mirrors - 2%

A clogged or dirty air filter not only affects your car's performance (robbing you of power), it also affects your gas mileage. Since different types of filter elements and driving conditions affect the cleanliness of your air filter, you should consider replacement around every 15,000 miles or once a year, depending on your local driving conditions.

Drive belts stretch, crack and harden over time, which can lead to slipping or breaking, leaving you stranded. The belt tensioner maintains a constant pressure on the belt but, as the belt stretches, the tensioner may only take out some of the slack or with v-belts you must move a pulley or accessory to manually tighten the belts. Loose or slipping belts will squeal, especially when cold, and cause the power steering pump, water pump, alternator, or A/C compressor to not function at full capacity.

Obviously the "Check Engine" light is a warning device to indicate a problem or condition requiring attention. Usually a flashing Check Engine light means a problem has occurred that should be investigated as soon as possible BUT a constant Check Engine light indicates a major malfunction requiring you to pull over immediately and shut off the vehicle. The Check Engine light can also mean that a specified service interval has been reached (100,000 miles for example) that requires a specific major service such as replacing the oxygen sensors. ALL Check Engine light (or any other dashboard warning lights) should be investigated immediately to avoid unsafe or damaging operating conditions.

Some cars still have a PCV filter. If you have one, it should be replaced every 15,000 miles, along with the PCV valve. The PCV valve is normally located in a breather hose from the valve cover to the air intake system, the filter being located where that hose attaches to the air intake.

Your car has numerous hoses to check within the engine compartment, from the cooling system to the air intake system as well as the fuel system. Rubber hoses will get brittle with age and heat, which can cause them to fail. You can check hoses for flexibility by squeezing them (do so when cold; do not touch hot coolant hoses) and checking them for signs of cracking or splitting.

It also a good practice to replace all the coolant hoses including heater hoses every 3 or 4 years. Cracked or loose air system hoses can cause engine hesitation or inconsistent operation resulting in poor mileage. Check these periodically for cracks, splitting, or loose hose clamps. Cars with fuel injection use prefitted high pressure fuel hose lines. These should be checked visually for cracking but if in need of replacement, they MUST be replaced with exact fitted replacements using proper tools and techniques.

Your radiator cooling fan is designed to move air through the radiator when the car is at slower speeds or stopped. The air flow removes heat created by the engine from the coolant using the radiator as a conductor. If the cooling fan fails, it causes the coolant to retain heat, forcing the engine to run hot and eventually overheat.

Checking the horn is obviously quite simple - just press on the steering wheel horn pad or buttons. Due to the location of most horns in the front fender or radiator support areas, the wire connections can become damaged or disconnected due to road debris. Most horns have a dedicated fuse because it is a "hot" system that doesn't require the key in the ignition. If the horn doesn't work, first check the fuse box under the dashboard or inside the engine compartment. Then check the horns for loose or damaged wiring and repair or replace as needed.

Having functional mirrors on your car is essential to your safety and being able to see the other vehicles around you in traffic. All passenger vehicles must have either an inside rearview mirror plus one on the driver's door OR two outside mirrors one on each front door. A damaged or missing mirror is not only dangerous but alsdo it may be against local vehicle laws so it should be repaired or replaced immediately.

For more information on these items, AutohausAZ has several articles that may be of interest to you:

Tuneup & Auto Maintenance Tips to Lengthen Your Import Car's Life
Perform Monthly Car Maintenance & Keep Auto Repair Costs Way Down
Cooling System Repairs - It's Easy to Prevent Breakdowns BEFORE They Happen

Or feel free to browse through all of the published articles in Gasoline Alley for specific topics of interest to you.

Battery - Your car's battery is the heart of the electrical system powering your car and all of its electrical components. Obviously, a car capable of being tested would not have a failed battery. However, testing did find that cables, clamps or terminals failed in 10% of the cars tested, while carrier or hold-down failures occurred in 7% of the cars tested.

Your car's battery should be checked regularly for corrosion around the terminals. The clamps and cables should also be checked for corrosion and fraying. Avoiding regular checks of your battery can result in your car not starting, leaving you stranded. Corroded connections can also prevent the battery from charging which, over time, will overwork the alternator, resulting in its failure and an even larger replacement expense.

Battery hold-downs (straps) are used to prevent the battery from moving, vibrating or spilling over while your car is in motion. Vibration will cause the battery to fail prematurely. Sharp movement or excessive vibration will cause metallic material to fall off the internal plates, potentially ruining the battery. Furthermore, the battery carrier or tray underneath the battery aids in securing the battery to the vehicle. Double check these, especially when replacing your battery. A badly corroded or rusted battery tray should be replaced to prevent the battery from falling out. Minor corrosion should be cleaned/neutralized with a baking soda and water solution or any commercially available battery cleaner as corrosion will continue to destroy the metal until it is completely gone.

For more information on your car's electrical system (including the battery), see Understanding Your Import Car's Electrical System.

Tires - Driving on tires that are bald, badly worn or unevenly worn greatly increases your chance of getting a flat or a blowout. It's especially dangerous when the roads are wet or slick since it decreases your ability to stop or control your car.

Yet, testing indicated that 15% of cars tested failed tire pressure checks and 12% failed checks of tire depth - both of which are conditions that could potentially pose safety risks.

It's important that you check the air pressure in your tires on a regular basis, at least once a month, since that's all it takes for the air pressure to change within the tire. Always check your tires cold before driving to obtain the most accurate reading. And, of course, make sure you know the proper air pressure for your tires - check your owner's manual or the sticker on the driver's door post.

Even more importantly, check the depth of your tire's tread. Worn out tread or bald tires cause safety issues since traction is reduced, decreasing your ability to control and stop your car. It's recommended that the tread depth of your tires be at least 2/32", but most experts recommend having no less than 4/32". Even at this depth, you should consider replacing your tires.

An easy way to test your tire's tread depth is by simply using a penny inserted in the tread Lincoln's head side down. If you can see the top of his head, your tread depth is below the 2/32" minimum. You should also have your tires inspected and rotated every 6,000 miles or twice a year.

For more information, read Tire Wear Provides More Info Than You Think in our Import Auto News online newsletter section.

So . . . Would YOUR Car Have Passed?

Don't Forget:

Repair articles are added regularly. Come back often to check for new maintenance topics.

These repair tips are designed only as a starting point. Please seek the assistance of a professional mechanic for all repair problems beyond your capabilities.

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