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Better Driver

How to stay safe on the road this summer Add to ...

The AAA in the United States expects 8.7 million motorists to be stranded at some point during this summer's travel season. That's a lot of troubled drivers by any measure, and if we are to extrapolate in the usual manner, 870,000 Canadian drivers will be similarly stuck at the side of the road. The vast majority of these problems could be averted with a few minutes of pre-trip preparation.

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We live in an age of instant everything - from sound bites and tweets to jumping in the car and going somewhere. The initial quality and long-term reliability of the modern passenger vehicle has resulted in one if not two generations of drivers who fully expect to be able to jump in and go - whether it be for a five-minute hop to the local store, a five-hour drive to the summer place or a five-day summer vacation haul. But each year, millions of motorists encounter a problem which could be avoided with a simple five-minute check.

It's easy to preach about preventative maintenance - but even easier to do it.

The American Automobile Association is by far the largest single source of roadside assistance in North America. It gets millions of calls for assistance from stranded motorists every year. It knows what goes wrong and suggests three easy maintenance tasks it figures will prevent the vast majority of those expected breakdowns. And if that isn't enough to convince you to give the old sled a once-over before setting out, consider these checks will also result in improving safety and save you money.


The AAA says more than 1.2-million Americans will have a flat tire this summer, that 85 per cent of drivers do not know how to properly inflate their tires and 50 per cent of vehicles on the road have at least one under-inflated tire. Checking your tires before setting out can prevent this.

All you need is a pressure gauge and a quarter. With the tires at ambient temperature - i.e., having not been used for several hours - locate the recommended tire pressure decal, usually located on a door post but sometimes inside the fuel filler flap. With these numbers in mind, not those on the tire, check the pressure in all five tires. (A spare is no use if it is flat when you finally need it.)

This is where you not only improve safety, but save money too. An under-inflated tire will heat up quickly and heat is the chief reason for tire failure. An under-inflated tire also rolls less easily, requiring more power and thus fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy says properly inflated tires can improve fuel economy by as much as 3 per cent (the equivalent of four cents a litre).

While you are bent down checking tire pressure, use a quarter to see how much tread is left on each tire. Insert the quarter in each gap across the treads' surface inside to outside with the Queen's head facing down. The tread should cover part of her head. If any area above her head is visible it is time to go tire shopping.

If tread depth is uneven across the tread it might also be necessary to have a suspension alignment, unless the tread is more worn on the outside, which would indicate the tire has been under-inflated.


The AAA expects to provide assistance to 1.7 million Americans with a dead battery this summer, replacing 700,000 of them.

Batteries have a life expectancy of three to five years. As is the case with tires, heat is the enemy - under the hood. Heat breaks down the internal components and speeds up corrosion of battery terminals. In either case, the result can be insufficient electrical power.

Check that the battery cables are firmly attached and clean the terminals if there is any sign of corrosion.

Wiper blades and washer fluid

The AAA says low or no windshield washer fluid was the second most common problem encountered during its 2010 car care inspections.

We get all kinds of crap on a windshield, from bugs to tar. All of this reduces visibility. The best way to clear the windshield is with proper fluid and a fresh, sharp wiper blade.

Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.


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