We have all seen the movie; a young couple are driving their car on a country road, maybe through a thunderstorm, when something suddenly goes wrong! The next thing you know they are knocking on the door of a spooky mansion, or running through their lives from werewolves or zombies.
These days there are a lot fewer things that go wrong with no warning and strand you in the neighborhood of a mad scientist’s lair. But some of the simplest and easiest to prepare for breakdowns still happen. Here are a few tips to help you have a happier Halloween, and the rest of the year.
Did you notice how you always seem to get a flat when it rains? Well, rain washes a lot of crud into the road or you to run over, so it may actually be true. You should be rotating your tires every oil change, and checking the air pressure every few weeks, so no one tire wears prematurely. Also, periodically check that your mini spare tire still has plenty of air in it, so it is ready when you need it. And don’t wait until you have a flat to learn where your jack is and how to use it.
The advice for driving with a sudden flat hasn’t changed since before the war: Don’t swerve or slam on the brakes, just pull over as gently and smoothly as possible and slowly come to a stop.
The young woman is walking to her car on a dark, moonless, possibly foggy night, and she hears footsteps behind her. Her pace quickens, she drops her keys, and finally get into her car as the steps get closer and closer. She turns the key and… click. Dead battery! Many horror movies would stop right here is the character had a cell phone and a decent roadside assistance plan.
Sometimes batteries do just drop dead suddenly, but sometimes they give you a few weeks of slow starts first. Modern cars have a lot of electronics, but as long as everything is healthy, should still only need a new battery every five years. Have a shop check yours to see how healthy it is at least once a year after the three year mark. Also, if shopping for a used car, beware anything with a lot of aftermarket electronics installed, because they often suck up a lot of juice, and a poor installation can drain a battery while the car is parked.
Of course, the other important part of the electrical system, the alternator, can go bad suddenly too. But typically you get a warning of an undercharging system by dim headlights at low RPM. Overcharging is typically heralded by the smell of acid as the battery is literally cooked and leaks.
Running out of gas may be the single biggest contributor to young people being attacked by movie monsters. Before the days of ATM cards and 24-hour self-serve gas stations, everyone’s dad would always tell them “make sure you have plenty of gas before 9 pm” and that is still good advice. If you are going to an unfamiliar area, or driving somewhere later at night, be sure you have enough fuel to get there and back before you set off. There are still plenty of places where you won’t be able to buy gas after 9 pm in rural America.
Unfortunately, there really is no contingency plan for this one. Perhaps you should join the auto club, and carry some sort of zombie defense weapon just in case?
Losing your fan belt was bad enough back in the day when it just drove the fan, alternator, and water pump, but now one serpentine drive belt powers all the accessories. The good news is that advances in rubber, routing, and spring-loaded tensioners have made it so these belts last 50-100,000. If one does go bad the car will start to run hot, but may not overheat too quickly in the cool of fall on the open road. However, after a while, between the electric cooling fan, the windshield wipers, and the headlights and fog lights, you will be stuck on the side of the road with a dead battery and steam coming out of the radiator.
This one is easy to avoid, just inspect your belt for signs of cracking or slipping once a year. Serpentine belts are not expensive and are easy to replace, so don’t put it off.
The other sudden failure that can happen to anyone, and has since the days of the drive-in movie, is the blown radiator hose, and subsequent overheating. Often times in the movies, this is the exact breakdown the leaves you alone out in the desert, miles from the nearest town, and vulnerable to marauding cannibal zombie bikers who need a human sacrifice. This is a very easy problem to avoid though, just check the hoses for signs of cracking or swelling at every oil change. Modern rubber hoses can last for years without issue, but all it takes is a small leak to ruin your day, and possibly your whole life!
Obviously, it would take a very special set of circumstances for you to get locked out of your car in the middle of a trip. It is possible though that you could leave the keys in the car while you stop to relieve yourself in the middle of nowhere, and accidentally lock yourself out. Hopefully, if this happens you didn’t also leave the phone in the car too. The ultimate nightmare would be locking your keys and phone in the car, with the car running, and no sign of another phone for miles. For various reasons, it is a good idea to bring an extra set of car keys on a road trip. It isn’t a good idea to use a magnetic Hide-a-key in normal day to day driving, but it is useful when on a long trip by yourself, where no one can bring you a spare key from home.