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Traffic on Highway 401 in Toronto passes under a COVID-19 sign on Monday.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

As Canadians stay home, cars are sitting unused for long stretches of time, which experts warn can cause problems for vehicles.

Dead batteries, noisy brakes and flat tires are the most common issues that can arise from leaving a car parked for weeks on end, says Josh Smythe, an expert mechanic and automotive specialist for the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA).

“Cars, they’re made to move,” Smythe says. “When they don’t move, they start to lock up, start to seize or not move as well,” he says. If you’ve ever sat on the couch binge-watching a television show, you’ll know the feeling.

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Countrywide, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) has responded to roughly 45 per cent more battery-related service calls than usual over recent weeks, according to a company spokesperson.

Since the federal government began advising all Canadians to stay home as much as possible and avoid all non-essential trips, people have been driving much less.

In Canada on a weekly basis, people are driving roughly seven billion fewer kilometres than usual, says Dennis DesRosiers, an automotive industry analyst and president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

As a result, rush-hour traffic is suddenly not so bad and, in many parts of the country, trips to cottages have been postponed indefinitely.

“This is not the time for people to go out to their summer cottages or seasonal villages,” a spokesperson for Alberta Health said.

In Ontario, cottage owners who need to check on their property are advised to make only brief visits of no more than an overnight stay, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health wrote in an e-mail.

Quebec has restricted travel to popular tourist regions and “vulnerable” communities, with police checkpoints only letting through drivers who are travelling for essential reasons. Road trips, too, are out of the question.

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Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said it will be weeks before things could get back to normal.

Preventative maintenance

To keep your car in good working order while not driving regularly, Mr. Smythe recommends taking a few preventative measures that could end up saving you a hefty repair bill.

Even when a car is parked, it still draws power from the battery. After a few months or even weeks, the battery could be dead, Mr. Smythe says. In that case, the car won’t start when you really do need to drive somewhere.

If you have a garage or driveway, he recommends plugging the car into a battery maintainer (not to be confused with a trickle charger, which is different).

If you don’t have anywhere to plug in, a solar-powered battery maintainer could work. Barring that, Mr. Smythe says people should start their cars every week or every other week if possible, ideally as part of a trip to get essential goods.

Electric vehicles can be left plugged into their chargers, he adds. However, some electric cars may also need a battery maintainer to keep the 12-volt battery charged, so — as ever — check your car’s manual for details.

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Since air can slowly leak out of tires, check their pressures before you drive and, if needed, pump them up to the recommended level, which can usually be found on a label inside the driver’s door.

If the brake rotors become rusty from going unused, you may hear an unusual sound from the brakes when you drive the car. However, Mr. Smythe says, the noise should dissipate as you keep driving.

Fuel can also go bad if left unused. “Considering the time that has elapsed, the fuel should be fine, but if this does continue for a couple more months, fuel stabilizers are worth considering,” Mr. Smythe says.

If your car does break down, call ahead to your mechanic to make sure the shop is open and find out what special procedures are in place, says JF Champagne, president of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada. Its members include garages and collision repair centres.

“The majority of service providers and repair centres remain open,” Mr. Champagne says, adding that many shops are operating at a reduced capacity, owing to physical distancing measures.

When it comes to car maintenance, Mr. Smythe says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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