If there’s a finer place on the planet than Australia during our sultry, salty summer, we’re yet to find it. Even our coldest states (we’re looking at you, Tasmania) have thawed and the sun is shining brilliant bright across the country.
And summer in Australia can only mean one thing: it’s roadtrip season, and millions of us load up our cars and head north (or south, or anywhere) in search of quiet beaches or unspoiled campsites where we can while away the balmy evenings with a barbecue and a backyard cricket set.
It’s fun to think about, isn’t it? What’s less fun to think about, though, is car safety maintenance, which ranks somewhere between dental appointments and jury duty on the “things I want to do” scale. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Now in ye olden days, way back when even a seat-belt was a distant concept and an airbag was nothing more than a fancy name for your carry-on luggage, keeping your car in tip top shape was a huge and constant job. Thankfully, times have changed, and these days even the cheapest new cars are packed with all kinds of high-tech equipment designed to do most of the safety work for you.
But that doesn’t mean your car couldn’t use a helping hand every now and again, and there are several simple and easy checks you can do at home to make sure your car is as safe as it can possibly be.
So before you set off on your sun-kissed summer roadtrip, take a moment to tick off some simple safety checks. Don’t worry, you won’t need a dense textbook, a hi-vis vest or a heap of expensive tools. Better still, the below tips take just seconds, and cost nothing, but will give you invaluable confidence behind the wheel.
First, let’s talk about lights.
You know that little Christmas tree that momentarily lights up on your dash every time you start your car? It’s not just there to make you feel festive, they are actually every one of your car’s many warning lights, covering everything from engine issues to low fluids and even a deflating tyre.
The problem is, it can be like deciphering the DaVinci Code (only more complicated), as each symbol is a strange hieroglyphic that only very loosely relates to what has gone actually wrong. A flat tyre, for example, is usually represented by a pair of brackets sitting above a squiggly line, while engine issues can be anything from an exclamation point to what appears to be a failed ink-blot test.
Those little lights are your first line of defence when it comes to safety checks. Preventing an issue is always the preferred option, but the next best thing is reacting to an issue before it gets too serious. And those warning lights literally light the way, so take a moment when starting your car to make sure you know what they all mean.
And speaking of deflating tyres.
They’re not a huge amount of fun. Especially when they deflate unexpectedly when you’re travelling at 110km/h. While there’s no way to completely defend against a surprise puncture, you can minimise your chances of a blowout by checking each tyre before you set off on holiday.
Every tyre in Australia comes with a built in wear indicator, which is the tiny raised bar inside the tyre’s main groove. The top of that bar marks the lowest point you can allow your tyres to wear before they need replacing. If your tyre’s tread is below that bar, then traction, grip and stopping power are all greatly reduced. And it is time to buy your car a fancy new pair of boots.
Have you been working on your summer body?
No, not renewing gym memberships and pounding out kilometres on the treadmill. We mean the body of your car, which needs a little attention now and again, too.
Before you head off on your roadtrip, look for small chips in your windscreen (vibrations on a rough road can cause those tiny cracks to shatter the entire windscreen in a micro-second), and ensure any of your bumpers or skirting haven’t come loose from the body of the car.
While you’re at it, check each of your tyres for damage from screws or road debris, and have a friend jump into the driver’s seat so you can check your headlights, brake lights and hazard lights are all working, too.
If you want to have a wheely good time.
(See what we did there?) You’ll need to make sure your car’s wheels are correctly aligned. If they’re not, then your car won’t track in a straight line, and will be less predictable when you’re going around corners, both of which are not great things on a roadtrip.
To check if something is wrong, find a quiet road and gently hold the wheel straight. If you can feel your car pulling to either side, your wheels might be out of alignment. Likewise, if you feel an out-of-place vibration through the wheel at freeway speeds, or if there are obvious and unusual wear marks on the outside of the tyres on either side of the car, then a trip to an alignment specialist or tyre fitter is in your future.
In summer, the good times never stop.
But that’s not a feeling you want to have in your car. Thanks to technology, and clever computer software, brakes are one of the things that have changed the most in our cars, but too many people don’t get full advantage out of their ABS (Anti-lock Braking Systems) because they don’t realise how much punishment they can actually take.
When you need to, you should hit your brakes as hard as you possibly can. You won’t break the brakes, but you will get maximum return – which means shorter stopping distances – by pounding them as fiercely as possible, to the point where you feel the pedal pulsing, and almost grinding, under your foot (that’s just the ABS doing its work).
Your roadtrip safety checklist.
Let there be light: Work out what each of the many warning lights in your dash mean before you set out. That way, there’s no surprises if one comes on.
Feel the pressure: Check the air-pressure in each of your tyres matches the manufacturer’s recommendation, and make sure there are no bald spots, too.
Work your body: Take a quick walk around your car to ensure nothing is hanging loose and that there’s no chips in your windscreen or tyre rubber.
Banish wheel wobbles: Find a quiet road and gently hold the steering wheel straight. If it pulls to the left or right, you might need a wheel alignment.
Reach braking point: Find somewhere quiet to practice bringing your car to a complete stop, like you might in an emergency. Stomp on the brakes, so you know what to expect.
This article was originally published by Fairfax Media on the 29th November 2016. This article represents the views of the author only and do not reflect the views of NRMA Insurance.