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Airbag Hazards: Pro and Con
Don't be Fuelish
Put the Squeeze on Your Cooling System
Automatic Transmission Care
Visit to a good service center
Shopping for service centers
A Bit of Prevention
Fall Behind
Choosing Tires for Wintertime Driving
A Little Good Reading
Tires Last Longer With Proper Care
Car Care Resolutions For a New Millennium
Flats and Flares: Roadside Emergencies
Spruce Up For Spring
DIY at the Self-Service Pump
Fill Gas Cans Carefully
Ford Recalls Millions of Firestone Tires
Doing the Straight & Narrow

Flats and Flares: Roadside Emergencies

Having the right gear in your car can turn a major problem into a minor inconvenience

By Sandy Compton

Anyone with more than a few years of driving under their belt has probably had at least a moment or two of pure frustration with their vehicle, ranging from a flat tire to a connecting rod exiting through the side of the motor. Thanks to advancing technology, modern vehicles are more dependable than ever, but they aren't perfect. Every once in awhile, they break down and when they do, you need to know what steps to take to get your vehicle safely off the roadway and seek help. Following are a few tips that will help keep your breakdown from becoming a major problem: 

Get out of traffic safely, smoothly and as quickly as possible. The Washington State Patrol (WSP) suggests that you attempt to coast to the right shoulder of a multiple-lane highway, where traffic is usually moving slower. Once on the shoulder, activate your emergency flashers and open the hood to your car. Be on the alert for approaching traffic. Return to your car and secure yourself until help arrives. If it is after dark, never leave your car and never walk alone. If someone approaches you, roll the window down just far enough to ask them to send help. Don't get out of the vehicle or leave with them. 

The WSP also advises that if the vehicle can't make it to the shoulder, activate the emergency emergency flashers, and stay in your car. Step out of the vehicle and you are taking the chance of getting hit by passing traffic. Whatever has gone wrong with your car is not as important as the safety of you and your passengers. 

Assess your situation
While traveling, pay attention to mile markers or road signs, so you know your current location. Make sure you have a good idea of how far it is to an exit, service center, or town. Next, try to determine what's wrong with the vehicle. A flat tire is pretty obvious, but there are dozens of things that can go wrong, which aren't as apparent. You may or may not know what's wrong, but your car may be willing to tell you if you know how to speak "car." What are the lights and gauges on your dashboard telling you? Is there smoke or steam coming out from under the hood? What sorts of noises did the car make when did it started acting up? What kinds of communications are available? 

Make a plan
Cars are like hard drives. It's not a question of if, but when, something will go wrong. With a little forethought, though, life can be easier in those trying moments. All it takes is some preparation and establishing a minimal emergency plan. It might be as simple as reaching for the cellular phone and dialing 911, or as complicated as crawling under the car and doing emergency repairs. Either way, the time to start planning for such an incident is now, before the steam starts rolling out from under the hood on the freeway at rush hour. 

A good thing to know is whether the car you are driving was manufactured by a company that provides roadside assistance as part of a new car package. According to an article in the November, 1998 Automotive News, 78 per cent of new vehicles are covered by roadside assistance programs for vehicle-fault problems. Some companies even respond to driver-fault problems. There are many similar programs, including motor clubs like the American Automobile Association, and some insurance companies offer roadside assistance options on their auto policies. 

Even so, there are still times when it is a good idea to have some basic auto knowledge and a few minimal mechanical skills. Know how to use the jack and lug wrench before you have a flat, and check your spare to make sure it's properly inflated at least four times a year. A canned tire sealer/inflator is a cheap, easy-to-use way to get enough extra miles miles out of a punctured tire so you can make it to a service center. 

Take along plenty of fluids: a gallon of potable water, a gallon of antifreeze, a couple of quarts of oil and a bottle of automatic transmission fluid. It is also a good idea to stock a fire extinguisher, tow strap, jumper cables and a set of tire chains. 

Other items to keep in the trunk include flares, spare belts, pliers, screwdriver set (regular and Philips), a crescent wrench, locking pliers, vinyl electric tape, duct tape, plastic wire ties in assorted sizes, gloves, coveralls, a couple of old blankets, first aid kit, an empty one-gallon gas jug, box of emergency food(nuts, granola bars, etc.) and bag of kitty litter to sprinkle on ice and snow for extra traction.

In the glove box it is a good idea to keep the vehicle registration, insurance papers, vehicle owner's manual, small flashlight with extra batteries, ice scraper, pocketknife and change for a telephone call (even if you have a cell phone.) Make sure that phone numbers for insurance agent, attorney, auto club, and a reputable towing service are also included. This might seem like a lot of stuff tostore in a small space, but you only need to use these items once to appreciate their value.  

The best pre-planning for roadside breakdowns is adhering to recommended service and maintenance intervals for your vehicle, as well as keeping an eye on your car's fluid levels and vital signs. Have your service manager or mechanic give you the short course on preventative maintenance, pay attention to the needs of your vehicle before something goes wrong and you can minimize the chances of having a roadside emergency. 

Sandy Compton is a Montana-based freelance journalist.