Parenting: Kids and car maintenance

David Murphy learned to drive, and then learned some general maintenance.
November 16, 2011

The people at Cooper Tires reminded me about this recently when they sent along a list of general winter time auto maintenance ideas for my consideration. The tips are not only good for adults they're also great points to pass along to teenaged drivers, especially those who have wheels of their own or who are the primary operators of one of the family cars. After all, it's the primary driver who's in the best position to notice if something isn't right and to do something about it.

In any season, but especially in the winter when traction can be at a premium, it's important to keep an eye on tread wear. A low, worn tread means the car will not handle, start or stop as well when there's moisture on the road. The problem is obviously compounded when the moisture is of the frozen variety. Cooper's Chuck Yurkovich, a technology expert, says "even if a driver's area does not typically receive harsh winter weather, it's important to conduct routine tire maintenance checks as the seasons change." Of course, around here, everyone's seen severe conditions over the past two winters and while this season will likely not be as bad, our recently released AccuWeather winter outlook is calling for slightly above-average snowfall with above-average ice thrown in.

Keeping your tires "honest"

Checking for tire tread depth is easy if you have a U.S. penny in your pocket. Stick the penny into the tire treads with Lincoln going in headfirst. If the top of Lincoln's head is covered by rubber, you've got at least the minimum amount of acceptable tread left. If Abe's entire head is exposed, you're dangerously low and can expect your car to behave poorly when the going gets tough. You should also look for deep cuts in the tire or "bubbles" where the rubber is bulging. These are signs of tire damage and an impending blow-out.

Some teen drivers may assume that if they're in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, they're less likely to have problems on wet or snowy days. This is incorrect. Four-wheel-drives usually take just as long to stop as any other car, and that goes for the other driver's all-wheeler, too. Just as much caution is required.

Under pressure

Cooper also notes that tire pressure changes as the temperature changes. I'll bet most drivers (and an even higher percentage of teen drivers) are not aware of this. In general, every time the temperature dips ten degrees, tire pressure drops by about a pound. Along with the keys, you should consider handing over one of those hand held tire pressure gauges your kid can keep in the car. Then, dump a few bucks worth of quarters in the console so they can drop by one of those gas station air machines a couple times as the winter moves in to get the tires up to the proper pressure. By the way, every car's owner's manual (usually available online in case your kid's car is missing one) will list the proper air pressure. The pressure is also often noted on a sticker on the pillar of the door, visible when the driver's door is open. In some cases, the front tires require a different pressure than the rear. Show your teen driver how to use the gauge as well as the gas station air machine. In the spring, as temperatures warm-up, fixing the pressure is easier since it rises in the building heat and all you have to do is let some of the air out, something that should also be demonstrated. Properly inflated tires, by the way, increase handling which is primarily why it's a big deal. But it's also a money issue, since tires wear-out faster when the pressure's either too low or too high.

Under the hood

Hesitation when starting the engine can be a sign of lots of possible problems, but one area your junior operator can look into is the battery. Kids should be comfortable with popping the hood and properly inserting any hood props. They should also know how to access the battery (which is not always as easy as it used to be as cars have gotten smaller and crammed with extra technology). A quick look at the battery terminals may reveal a white, powdery accumulation which should be washed away with a solution of warm water and baking soda. It's also possible to loosen the terminals and gently scrape away any undesired build-up with a file. Jumper cables should be in the car, too, and teen drivers should be given a lesson on using them, in case they find themselves in a situation where they need a jump but the person offering to help has no clue how to do it. A car's owner's manual should have instructions, but you and your kid can also check out YouTube for multiple "how to jump a car battery" instructional videos. The one I've linked is from, but there are several that do the job. Injury from electric shock is possible when jumping a battery incorrectly, so it's important to know what you're doing and not to trust your memory if you're not sure. If, for some reason, your kid's owner's manual doesn't have this instruction, or if the manual is missing, I would highly recommend printing out a copy of battery jumping instructions. Here's a link to some brief, written instructions you can print-out and stick in the glove compartment.

Engine hesitation while driving is almost always a sure sign that the car needs service. It could be everything from a bad fuel pump, failing alternator, or a dying battery (which can sometimes be revived cheaply with a re-charge. But in all of these cases, a skilled mechanic is essential for a proper fix. Your children should report any of these symptoms to you and the work should be scheduled quickly. In addition, teen drivers should become familiar with the normal feel of their car, as well as the sounds it usually makes. A shudder in the brake pedal, a shimmy in the steering wheel, or any unusual squeaking can mean a possible problem with the brakes or suspension. Again, the repair shop gets a call in these cases.

Making your kids aware of these basic fixes and maintenance issues is important since a knowledgeable driver more often avoids major headaches before they happen and also stays safer. As a parent, you may also have to keep on top of kids about these issues, especially if it's up to them to pay for repairs. Teenagers who don't have a lot of money may decide to hedge their bets on car expenses, which is generally not a good idea. Car expenses first, tell them, presents for girlfriends/boyfriends second!

---David Murphy

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