7 Helpful Ways to Drive Safely and Save Money This Spring
As the long, cold winter finally recedes and we begin to enjoy the warmth of spring, many of us will take to our cars and hit the road. But the changing of the seasons signifies more than just a change in the weather. Driving conditions—both on the roads themselves and, especially, regarding the health of your car or truck—are also quite different and require attention in particular ways.
We've put together seven categories of spring-driving-related tips for you to take a look at below:
1. HOW TO DRIVE SAFELY IN HEAVY TRAFFIC
When the sun comes out and the weather improves, a lot of folks hit the road. Although driving conditions might be better than they were in the winter, this means there will likely be much more traffic to contend with as well. You might not be dealing with ice and snow, but a buildup of vehicles can be just as dangerous as a stretch of slippery pavement. Here are a few tips to help you stay alert and safe when driving in heavy traffic:
Slow Down a Bit
If you run into a little (or a lot) of traffic, slow down a bit. Zigzagging along, while trying to find the fastest-moving lane, really won’t save you much time. By slowing down, you can avoid potential collisions with jittery drivers who just don’t have the patience to deal with traffic delays.
Maintain a Buffer Zone Between Vehicles
Driving a tad slower will also help you keep a better buffer zone between you and the vehicle in front of you. If you maintain a reasonably sized buffer zone, you’ll have time to react to sudden braking by the cars ahead of you, or any erratic driving you might encounter. Sadly, you can’t dictate the buffer zone with the vehicle behind you (that’s up to the other driver), but any extra cushioning you manage to find will give you a few extra seconds to react to the unexpected—even in slow-moving traffic.
Pay Attention to Your Situational Awareness
Buffer zones, car mirrors and a general awareness of the traffic ahead of and behind you will help you build a mental picture of the driving conditions on your particular stretch of road or highway. By keeping track of your blind spots, and watching changes in the driving patterns of others, as well as road signs indicating detours, construction work or other obstacles in your way, you’ll be building up your situational awareness. A better situational awareness will let you prepare for surprises down the road.
Communicate Your Driving Intentions
You have turn indicators and lights, and it’s a good idea to use them in order to communicate your driving intentions to those around you. While this is true all the time, it’s especially true in congested traffic. Letting other drivers know what you’re about to do helps them prepare their own course of action, and reduces the risk of getting into trouble. You can also use your lights to flash and signal other drivers, warning them of potential problems, while increasing the visibility of your own vehicle.
Traffic jams can be maddening, but still, try to stay as cool as you can. Aggressive driving should be saved for the racetrack (and ‘Mad Max’ movies). By yelling at other drivers and driving with anger, you’ll only end up damaging your own car or truck, and possibly your body too. The high blood pressure and stress you’ll pile on just isn’t worth it. Zen is the name of the game in heavy traffic. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …
Stop slamming on your bakes. Drive slower, maintain a buffer zone between vehicles, and brake smoothly. By stopping and starting your car without jerky motions, you’ll avoid knocking into bumpers, and help traffic flow along at a better pace.
Take an Actual Break
If you find it’s too hard to be a considerate driver in a traffic jam (we’ve all had our bad days), try and leave the road for a spell. Take an actual break. Have cup of coffee, a donut, go for a walk, or just nap in your car for a few minutes. If the desire to slam into other vehicles and choke other drivers is overwhelming, get off the road. Save yourself—and others—a lot of grief. Once you’ve calmed your nerves down some, you can rejoin the rat race.
2. AVOID COSTLY CAR REPAIRS BY CHECKING YOUR SPARK PLUGS
Loose, faulty or failing spark plugs, or spark-plug wires can be the root of some serious engine trouble. Knowing it’s the spark plugs (and not something worse) can save you a lot of time and money at the auto-repair shop. And, if nothing else, misfires from spark-plug malfunction can cost you a lot at the pump.
But before you have your mechanic charge you by the hour to dive into your engine compartment, check your spark-plug wires yourself and see if you can’t save a dime. If you suspect your spark plugs or the wires are causing problems in your engine, start by inspecting the wires.
Find the Wires
The spark plug wires are the black rubbery cords that connect your engine block and distributor cap. The wires are different lengths and twist around each other, so it’s important to mark them so you know which one is which if you remove them. They have to go back the same way.
Check the Wires
You should check and make sure the rubber insulation around the spark plug wires is not damaged. If it is, a wire could be sparking in the engine compartment, causing its connected spark plug to misfire. Inspect the length of each wire, bending them to make sure no cracks appear. Replace any wires with insulation damage. Make sure you check the part number on the wire and use the same one.
Check the Connections
After you follow along each wire to make sure the rubber insulation is intact, you need to inspect the connections to the plugs. Check each wire’s connection at the spark-plug end individually by pulling it off the plug, checking it for any tears or cracks in the insulation and then replacing it tightly to make sure the connection is secure. You should also look for any burning or darkening at the end which would indicate arcing.
Check the Spark Plugs
If the wires all look good, check the spark plugs and see if they need changing. You’ll want to pull the spark plugs out one at a time. They fire in a specific order, so don’t get them mixed up.
Remove the Plugs
To remove a spark plug, pull the plug wire by its boot at the base closest to the engine block to get it off the end of the plug. You don’t want to pull the plug wire from its boot, or you’ll have to get a new one. When the wire is off, use a spark-plug socket on your ratchet to unscrew the spark plug from its housing. Again, do this one at a time.
Inspect the Plugs
When you have the spark plug out, check to see how dirty it is. It should have a little bit of soot on it, but not a lot. If the plug is white or oily, that could be a sign of other issues, so take note. You should also check the porcelain insulator to see if it’s cracked. If the plug looks okay, you can put it back in the housing.
Replace the Plugs
If your spark plugs are blackened with soot or have cracked insulators, you need to replace them. First, make sure you are using the exact same spark plugs, or else they won’t fit properly and the wires won’t attach. One at a time, carefully put the new plugs in the holes with your socket. Screw them in by hand at first, and then tighten them with the ratchet. Then reattach the spark-plug wire to the end and make sure it’s connected well.
3. GET YOUR CAR WASHED—PROFESSIONALLY
After winter has finally finished wreaking havoc on our roads and vehicles, it’s important that we remove all of the accumulated salt and chemicals from our cars. Road crews help keep the streets clean and safe for driving, but unfortunately a lot of the materials they use to battle ice and snow build up on the outside, inside and undersides of our cars and trucks.
Sure, a bucket and hose will help you clean your car and get it ready for spring, but if you really want to protect your automobile, you might want to consider shelling out a bit of extra cash and going in for a professional carwash, and maybe a car wax too. Here are some of the reasons to hit the carwash this spring:
It Makes Future Washes Easier
By applying a coat of wax to your precious vehicle, you’ll actually make washing your car in the future a heck of a lot easier. Car wax will act as a protective barrier between the gunk and dead bugs knocking into your vehicle and its paint. This in turn will make deceased insects, pollen, tree sap and other goo easier to wipe off.
Better Fuel Economy
A clean and glistening car is actually more aerodynamic and less vulnerable to wind resistance while you’re driving. That translates into money saved at the gas pump and better overall mileage for your car.
Wax Reduces Paint Chips
Pebbles and other debris that hit your car while you’re cruising along can cause paint to chip off. A coating of car wax will help those tiny stones glance off, reducing the damage small impacts (not boulders, though, sorry) can cause to the body of your car or truck.
By maintaining a clean and well-washed car, inside and out, you’ll be able to see through your windshields much better, and the images in your mirrors will be much clearer. Cleaning grime off your lights means others will be able to see your car more easily at night or in adverse driving conditions. In other words, a cleaner car is a safer car.
A thorough wash will help get rid of corrosive materials on your vehicle, like sulfuric acids and other chemicals churned up from the road. This in turn will keep your car or truck in better shape, allowing the paint and working parts to last a lot longer. Don’t underestimate the effects of acid rain, decaying bugs and road salt on your car’s body and undercarriage. Clean that goop off now. And while you or your car-care professional are at it, clean the grunge from your wheels and hubcaps off too.
By maintaining a clean car, you’ll be a lot safer while driving and you’ll save yourself a ton of money down the road.
4. IMPORTANT TIRE-MAINTENANCE TIPS
As winter gradually becomes spring, it’s vital that you, or the folks working at your local garage, check your car’s tires. The three big things you need to examine are: the tread depth, different kinds of wear and tear, and your tire pressure.
Tires, after all, are what allow you and your vehicle to roll down the road. Any major problems with your rubber foursome will make for a bumpy, and possibly dangerous, ride. Here’s a little more detail about why and how you should make sure your tires are in tip-top shape:
Tread depth is essential to a well-performing tire. Proper tread depth helps prevent hydroplaning, and it gives your vehicle solid traction on the road in adverse weather conditions like rain, sleet, hail or snow. If you have a tread depth gauge, it’s fairly easy to measure the depth of your tires. After you “zero out” your tread-depth gauge, which should measure 32nds of an inch, place it into the center of the middle tread of your tire, then verify the depth of your tread. If the depth is not 32nds of an inch, you should probably start thinking about replacing your worn tires.
If you don’t have a tread-depth gauge, you can also measure the depth of your tread with a penny or quarter. This is a neat and simple trick that will allow you to verify that you have the proper tread depth in your tires. On a quarter, if George Washington’s head is fully showing after it has been inserted into the tire upside down, the tread is too shallow.
Wear and Tear
Tire wear is normal when you drive, but you many notice stress in certain areas more than others. Uneven wear can come from a variety of causes, such as:
- under- or overinflated tires
- one-sided wear due to improper wheel alignment
- cupping from damaged suspension
- feathering that comes from an improper toe setting (the direction the tires point in relation to the centerline of the vehicle)
If you notice any of these problems and lack the skills to take care of the issues yourself, take your car in for service. Uneven tire wear can reduce the life of your tires significantly, which will end up costing you a lot of money.
Your tires, obviously, require air. If they are over- or underinflated, as we’ve already seen, your tires will suffer, as will your gas mileage and driving maneuverability. A basic tire air-pressure gauge or a digital air-pressure gauge is all you need for the job. With your gauge in hand, you can measures the pounds per square inch (PSI) of your tires and make sure they are inflated to the manufacturer’s recommend level.
Unfortunately for the lazy folks out there, tire pressure should be checked fairly often. By maintaining the correct tire pressure, though, you’ll ensure a better fuel economy in your vehicle (saving money), and make your car or truck a much safer, more comfortable driving machine.
5. CHECKING YOUR ENGINE FLUIDS
A great way to keep your car in good running shape between major tune-ups is to check the fluids yourself. It’s an inexpensive and simple way to prevent engine wear or damage, and save money at the auto shop. While checking the fluids in your car is a fairly straightforward process, it does take some know-how.
Here are seven fluids you should pay attention to to keep your car running right:
Your engine needs oil to keep the moving parts lubricated. To check the oil, first take your car for a short drive, then wait about five minutes so it can cool down. Under the hood, the dipstick in the oil tank should be close to the front of the engine, near you. It’s usually pretty easy to find. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it with a cloth or towel, and then dip it all the way back into the oil tank. Pull it back out and see where the oil line is. There should be a notch in the dipstick to show you where a safe oil level should be. If it seems low, check the cap or your car manual for the type of oil you should use and then add some yourself.
The radiator fluid keeps your engine from overheating. If you run low, you risk overheating in traffic and getting stranded on the side of the road. Check this fluid when your car has been driven, not when it’s cold. The contents of the radiator are pressurized, so never remove the cap when the engine is hot or running. You’ll likely find the radiator cap in the front and middle of the engine compartment. Open it carefully with a rag, and look into the radiator to see if you can see the coolant. If you can’t see it near the top, you’ll need to add more.
Transmission fluid keeps your transmission lubricated, which can prevent many expensive issues from developing. The other dipstick in your engine (not the oil one) is for your transmission fluid. Much like the oil, to check it you just remove the dipstick, wipe it off with a rag or cloth, and put it back in the tank. Pull it out again to see how high the fluid reaches on the stick. You also want to check the quality of the fluid. Get a bit on your fingers and rub it around to see if it is pinkish or clear like it should be. If it smells burnt or has particles in it, it’s time for a change.
Power Steering Fluid
Power steering fluid keeps your car’s power steering working by keeping it lubricated, adding power to your ability to control the car’s wheels. To check the power steering fluid, find the reservoir under the hood. It’s usually on the passenger side. Either way, it’s likely to be near the belts and the cap will probably say “steering” on it. Most cars have an opaque container, so you should be able to see the fluid level without opening the cap. Otherwise, before opening the cap, clean the area around it with a cloth so dirt doesn’t get into the system. Then, open the cap and use the dipstick the same way you would with the oil tank. If the fluid is low, you can easily add more yourself. You may also want to check around the reservoir to make sure there isn’t a leak.
Your brake fluid is pressurized and adds power to your braking and keeps you from running into other vehicles. The brake fluid reservoir is usually near the back of the engine compartment. Clean off the outside before you open the tank, as any dirt in the fluid can be dangerous in your system. To open the reservoir just unscrew the cap or use a screwdriver to pry off a clamp that may be holding it in place. Look inside to see where the fluid level is. It should be within about a half-inch of the cap. If it isn’t, check your manual to see what kind of fluid you should add. Also check the color of the brake fluid—if it looks dark in color, you should have a mechanic replace it.
Air Conditioning Coolant
When the weather warms up, you’ll want to check the coolant (sometimes called refrigerant or Freon) level in your air conditioning system to make sure it’s ready to work. Checking this fluid can be a bit complicated, but it’s better than having a mechanic charge you for putting more in when it’s not needed. Before you begin, you’ll need to get the proper A.C. gauge and thermometer from an auto-parts store. If it turns out your coolant level is low, you can easily recharge the system with supplies from the auto parts store. (Here's a helpful video that'll show you how.)
The windshield-washer fluid doesn’t keep your engine running, but it’s really helpful for making it easier for you to see while you’re driving. Checking the washer fluid is easy. Most cars have opaque washer fluid tanks with a label on the cap like “windshield” or “washer.” You should be able to see inside without removing the cap. Otherwise it should just twist off, since the fluid isn’t pressurized or dangerous. If you need more fluid, don’t just use soap and water. Get some washer fluid that's formulated to handle bugs and road grime. If you’re completely out and in for a dirty drive, the window cleaner you use at home can work until you can get washer fluid. (Another helpful video here.)
6. HOW TO DRIVE ON POTHOLE-FILLED ROADS
When the weather breaks and the sun begins to shine, folks tend to hit the road. But not so fast there (figuratively and literally), you springtime drivers. While the skies might be blue overhead, the newly non-snow-covered roads could very well be full of dangerous potholes.
Sometimes referred to as the bane of all drivers, potholes often emerge after a snowmelt, or when freezing temperatures subside. With a little extra driving care, you can figure out how to deal with these hazards, saving a ton of wear and tear on your car as well as your fragile nerves.
First off, a bit about how potholes happen. Water works its way into cracks in the road’s surface. When the weather gets cold enough, the water freezes and expands. The pavement will then bubble up due to the swelling water and ice. Normal road traffic over these vulnerable spots subsequently leads to the formation of potholes, which translates into fun for everyone.
Pothole Driving 101
You’re best bet is simply to keep an eye out for potholes. If you avoid a pothole, you avoid damage to your vehicle, and a potential accident. By driving slower, and refraining from tailgating (always a good idea), you’ll reduce the risk of slamming into a dangerous pothole. Yet even the most cautious of drivers hits one now and again. Here are a few tips to minimize the damage:
- Don’t speed up. It’s not possible to “fly over” a pothole.
- Slow down if you see an unavoidable pothole. By reducing your speed, you’ll reduce the amount of carnage you and your car will suffer.
- Again, don’t tailgate. If the driver in front of you slams into a pothole (or just misses one), you’ll need time to react in order to take evasive action.
- Watch out for puddles or frozen patches of ice on the road. They just might be hiding a pothole.
- Grip the steering wheel firmly when driving over a pothole. The wheel might jerk about when your tires dip into the hole. It’s important to maintain control of your vehicle and keep it as steady as you can.
- Never brake into a pothole. Let the car take the impact of the pothole, not your brakes.
- Don’t veer off to the side. If you can’t avoid a pothole, reduce your speed, and drive as straight as possible.
- Make sure your car is aligned. Correct wheel alignment is a gift when it comes to handling your vehicle in normal conditions—and especially so when driving over potholes. Proper wheel alignment will also help your tires last a lot longer. (See video here.)
- After hitting a pothole, pull over and check for damage (and flat tires). If the alignment is out of whack or the steering is wonky, get your vehicle serviced as soon as you can. This way you’ll avoid further trouble down the road.
7. SAVE MONEY BY CLEANING AND CHANGING YOUR CAR'S AIR FILTER
Owning a car can be expensive. Part of that expense is the regular maintenance that keeps your car running efficiently, which is why it’s not a bad idea to learn to handle some standard car maintenance yourself.
It’s not enough to have mastered the art of the oil change or keeping your tires perfectly inflated. To keep your car performing well, you should also pay more attention to the air filter in your engine.
What Does the Air Filter Do?
Your car has an air filter to keep dust, dirt, bugs and other random air particles out of your engine. As that filter catches more and more of those particles, it gets clogged up, gradually letting less and less air through to the engine. This lack of air harms your engine’s performance, which in turn reduces your gas mileage, costing you more money at the pump.
Unfortunately, it may not be obvious that your air filter needs replacing while you’re driving your car. You can’t feel it like you would if a spark plug went out, for example. This means you have to check your air filter regularly to clean it out and change it when the time comes. Your car’s manual will tell you when it should be changed, but 15,000-30,000 miles is a decent estimate.
The good news is that your air filter is probably easy to get to, and it’s definitely easy to clean and change. Doing this yourself can save you a lot of money.
How to Clean Your Air Filter
Step 1: Locate It. Generally, a car’s air filter is easy to get to. First, check your car’s manual, or search for it online if you don’t have it. (There are websites where car manuals are posted.) The manual will show you where to find the air filter. Some air filters will be in a cylindrical casing; others will be flat and rectangular.
Step 2: Remove It. Once you’ve found the filter, it should come out pretty easily. Most likely, you’ll just have to loosen a couple of wing nuts or remove a few clamps. If you’re uncomfortable, ask your mechanic to show you the next time you take your car in for service.
Step 3: Clean It. Once you have the filter out, it’s time to get it clean. You can start by tapping it on your bumper to shake out any loose particles. At this point, you can choose to wash your filter with a cleaning solution or kit or just vacuum what you can out of it. Washing it will take more time and you’ll damage your engine if you put it back in wet, but it will get the filter cleaner. Vacuuming the filter is a simpler and quicker process, but it won’t get the filter as clean. But if your filter is so dirty that the vacuum can’t really help much, it’s probably time to change it altogether. Give the filter a lot of attention with the vacuum, making sure to hit every fold.
Step 4: Clean the Housing. The next thing to do is clean the casing that houses your filter. If it isn’t that dirty, a disposable shop towel might do the trick. Or you can give it a quick once-over with the vacuum while you’ve got it out. Just make sure you get out any loose dirt or debris so it doesn’t go right back into the filter as soon as you start up the car again.
Step 5: Put It Back. When the filter is clean and dry, all you have to do is put it back in its housing and replace the wing nuts, bolts or clamps. Make sure you don’t put a wet air filter back into your car. Check to make sure it’s securely in place, and then watch your gas mileage improve.
How to Replace Your Air Filter
Step 1: Find Your Part. If you decide that your filter needs to be replaced, you’ll first need to find out what kind of filter you should replace it with. Your car’s manual should tell you what filter to purchase, or you can check the one in your engine and match it. Otherwise, you can search online at any auto-parts supplier’s website by entering your make and model year to find replacement parts.
Step 2: Remove the Old Filter. Once you have your new filter ready to go, take out your old filter just like you did to clean it. While you’ve got it out, take a moment to clean out the housing for it so there’s no dirt and debris to jump right into your new filter as soon as you have it in there.
Step 3: Put In the New Filter. Make sure your new filter is completely out of its packaging and free of any dirt, and then put it in where the old filter was. It’s really that simple. You can save quite a bit of money on parts and labor doing it yourself, rather than paying a mechanic.
To watch a helpful video on how to change your air filter, go here.
Information for this article was compiled by Carl Pettit and Kathy Landin.