Today's guest author may have the kindest hobby known to mankind: rescuing stranded drivers. For no fee or compensation, Walt Brinker has rescued over 2,000 drivers stranded on roadsides throughout the United States. This passion for helping drivers is demonstrated throughout his book “Roadside Survival; Low-tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns” as Walt shares the knowledge he's learned by providing roadside assistance to stranded drivers over the years. He currently lives in Eastover, North Carolina, where he continues to rescue drivers in need of emergency roadside assistance and share tips for drivers on how to avoid vehicle breakdowns on his Roadside Survival Blog.
When we heard about Walt's passion, we were a) inspired by his passion to help other drivers and b) wanted to share Walt's expertise with our teen drivers. So we sent Walt some questions concerning teen drivers and vehicle breakdowns; Walt graciously accepted our request. Below are his insightful responses to our questions. (Aceable's questions are in bold; Walt's responses are below.)
Note from Walt: Many of the questions below ask about things unique to teen drivers. My experience is that teens encounter the same roadside issues as adult drivers; there is no difference between them. So my answers below address all drivers, not just teens.
What's the number one reason you see teen drivers in need of roadside assistance?
By far, the number one reason vehicles break down is tire failures: blowouts, tread separations, and ordinary flat tires. 75% of the drivers I have assisted were stranded due to a tire failure. (Tire failures will have a huge impact on the rest of my responses.) The other 25% of vehicle breakdowns are due to a combination of 1) running out of gas; 2) engine overheating; 3) battery/alternator issues and 4) getting locked out of the vehicle.
What steps should drivers take to prevent vehicle breakdowns?
Step 1: “Listen” to your car. It will “tell” you when it is about to fail. Your job is to listen. Here are some signs of trouble:
- wheel vibration, mushy handling, pulling to one side
- weak engine starts, dim lights, chirping
- temp gauge reads hot (more than 40% from Cold to Hot)
- warning lights (including “battery” light)
- unusual noises from wheels, brakes, engine, transmission.
- funny odors
- excess or white exhaust
- fluid leaks
Step 2: Take your vehicle to a mechanic to address what your car “tells” you!
Step 3: This is the most important step: ensure your tires are in good condition. Get them inspected by a tire pro every 5,000 miles.
- When purchasing new tires, get the “free replacement” warranty for damaged tires. I have used this with every purchase of 4 new tires.
- Develop the habit of visually checking for low tires.
- Check tire pressures each month, and before a trip. Include the spare tire! (The correct tire pressures for front, rear & spare tires are listed on the label located at the driver’s door jam.)
- If tires are low, reinflate them! A 12-volt compressor (use car battery or jumper battery) and tire pressure gauge are most convenient for reinflation purposes.
Step 4: Watch gas gauge. Refuel at ¼ tank.
Step 5: Keep battery connections tight (so they cannot be wiggled by hand)
Step 6: Check engine oil; add oil if low. Oil is life blood for the engine.
If your motor vehicle breaks down, what are some steps you should take ?
There are several facets to safety. Here are some thoughts to consider if your car breaks down:
1. Get your vehicle to a location safe from being hit by other vehicles – you may need to drive on a flat tire rim if there is no shoulder, rest area, or exit.
2. Should you stay in your vehicle or get out? If stuck in a traffic lane or on the narrow shoulder of a busy freeway, get out of the vehicle. Otherwise, it's better to stay inside to stay warm or cold.
3. Vehicle Breakdown Risks:
- Getting hit by another vehicle, especially at night
- Predators (walking or driving by)
- Extreme Temperatures (too hot / too cold)
- No water; no food
- No toilet
4. Minimize exposure time. Self-help may be best if help is uncertain or delayed.
5. Safe practices for changing a tire by yourself:
- May need to move motor vehicle to a level, firm surface
- Jack up vehicle vertically
- Prevent roll with parking brake & chock blocks on both surfaces of the tire diagonally opposite the flat tire
- If on soft ground, place piece of lumber under jack for stability
- Loosen lug nuts with a cheater bar. (Not by standing on lug wrench handle.)
- If using jumper cables, first read the vehicle’s manual to ensure safe use with steps in proper sequence.
- If your engine has died and you know you have gas, check the tightness of the battery clamps. If you can wiggle them on the post by hand, this likely is the problem (about half the time).
What are some extra steps you should take if your car breaks down at night, especially in an unfamiliar place?
Alert other drivers. Do this especially when visibility is limited, such as when stranded at nighttime or when located just around a turn or over a hill.
Use warning triangles. Make sure to use correct placement. Use any other device that will enhance your visibility, such as a reflecting vest or vehicle flashers.
Why not flares? Flares have a shelf life, and they burn out. Triangles do not.
What's one thing that most teen drivers forget to do when they have a roadside breakdown?
Many drivers don’t first think about resources they have available (besides their cell phone) to bail themselves out. The first resource should be the operator manual for the vehicle, which gives step-by-step instructions on solving minor emergencies, such as changing a tire and using jumper cables.
What's one piece of advice you would give teen drivers?
Before driving at all, practice changing a tire on your vehicle, using the tools in your vehicle. Flat tires are the most common reason for breaking down and changing a flat is usually doable with the proper tools. Practicing a tire change helps identify tool shortfalls which can be corrected before you're caught stranded on the roadside (see emergency car kit list at the end of this article ).
What's one tip you would give parents of teen drivers?
Ensure that the driver can change a tire safely with tools in their vehicle. Ensure that their vehicle has tires that are not worn and not older than six years. Ensure that the tires on the street are properly inflated (per decal on the driver’s door jamb) and the spare tire is fully inflated; 80% of spare tires are either flat or too low on air pressure to work safely.
Why not just call AAA? (Question added by Walt)
I don't knock AAA or other assist companies. I can confirm, from having performed well over 2,000 free-of-charge roadside assists as a hobby, that they usually provide good service in places where they use their own people and equipment (although they're not always timely). Problems occur with breakdowns away from their offices where they often subcontract the work to third stringers who are not competent. I have seen a lot of this. So why not focus on preventing breakdowns in the first place?
What should every teen driver have in their car emergency kit?
Some of these items may seem a bit too bulky for your vehicle’s storage capacity (perhaps the water jug, empty gas can, speed wrench); if so, you should work from the bottom of the prioritized list when deleting items. The more of these items you have when you break down, the better your chances of being able to bail yourself out. See the attached pictures of these items laid out and stowed in a car trunk.
1. A complete set of tire-changing tools designed for your vehicle. Tire-changing tools should already be in your vehicle, but you need to confirm this. A complete set of tire-changing tools includes: -lug wrench -jack (with all the components) -key to the locking lug nuts -key to gain access to the spare tire. Not a common item, but you need to check to be sure. Easy way to know? Try to remove spare without a key :)
2. Your Vehicle's Operator Manual. It will provide step-by-step instructions on how to change a tire and cope with minor emergencies. Drivers should read this manual before getting behind the wheel.
3. Serviceable, properly inflated spare tire designed for your vehicle. This should already be in your vehicle, but you need to confirm it (and check the tire’s air pressure). Trust but verify.
4. Cell phone (including battery charger). You'll use this to summon help if needed. (This item likely would not be kept in the vehicle, but carried by the driver.)
5. Magnetic key box (containing a car door key). This will help prevent you being locked out of your vehicle. It should be secured under the vehicle, not in an inside-the-vehicle storage place.
6. Road atlas. A road atlas will help you determine your location if you are far from home, be a good resource if your GPS is not working, and give you good support if you need to call for help. My atlas lists all Walmart stores, which are an excellent source for good deals on tires. This is essential if a motorist’s GPS does not work or is unable to locate other major tire dealers, such as Pep Boys (which typically stays open later than most: Monday thru Saturday until 9 PM; Sundays until 6 PM).
7. Old beach towel. You can use a towel to pad your knees while kneeling or to stay clean while lying on the ground to position a vehicle jack.
8. Cheap tarp. For use with, or in lieu of, beach towel when ground is wet.
9. Tire pressure gauge. It should be calibrated to at least 60 psi (pressure required for most donut spare tires to be useful and safe). Tires for some heavy pickups, vans, trailers and campers require even higher tire pressure, so the gauge would then need to register greater than 60 psi.
10. 12-volt air compressor. Use to inflate tires to operating pressures. Get 12-volt power from a car cigarette lighter or portable jumper battery.
11. Cheater bar. A 1” X 2' long steel pipe that costs $8 at hardware stores. You'll use this to slip over the handle of your vehicle lug wrench or breaker bar for extra leverage if lug nuts are on too tightly. This also can be used as a lever to lift a heavy spare tire the final ¼-inch, while mounting on the vehicle’s wheel, to facilitate lining up wheel lugs with holes in the rim.
12. 4-way lug wrench. Get a large one, at least 22” for good leverage and to quickly “spin off/on” lug nuts, especially if your vehicle has no lug wrench.
13. Pair of heavy leather work gloves. You can use this to protect your hands from exposed steel wires in blown out tires.
14. A set of 3 reflecting warning triangles. This will help alert other drivers to you and your vehicle on the roadside.
15. A Light-reflecting vest. It should be bright orange or yellow, with white reflecting strips.
16. Pliers (or vise-grips), used to gain sufficient leverage to loosen rusted wing nuts securing spare tires to vehicles (in car trunks and minivans).
17. A piece of treated plywood board. It should be 8” X 8” X ½” thick. When on soft/uneven ground or sand, you'll place this under the vehicle jack to distribute the vehicle’s weight, to stabilize the jack, and prevent it from sinking or sliding.
18. Headlamp (fits on a strap around your head). A headlamp works much better than a flashlight) in case the breakdown occurs at night. Check its batteries.
19. Battery terminal brush. This includes both male and female components to clean both posts and clamps.
20. Jumper cables. Thick, heavy duty (2- or 4-gauge), 20-feet long cables to permit jump starts and remote battery charges, without having to put vehicles front-to-front or even side-by-side for a boost.
21. A portable jumper battery with short cables can be used to jump start an engine with a weak battery and power a 12-volt air compressor, or cell phone. This battery often lacks sufficient power to jump start a large engine with a dead battery. In that case, use jumper cables. Typically, portable jumper batteries feature a lamp to illuminate nighttime tire changes and jumps. Portable jumper batteries require charging after each use as well as monthly charges. Total loss of charge kills these batteries.
22. Flat, thin “combination” wrench ("open” on one end and “box” on the other) or a ¼-inch drive socket wrench for battery clamps. The range of nut sizes on battery clamps is 8mm – 13 mm. Most common size is 10 mm. Note: Adjustable monkey wrenches do not work since their heads are too thick and bulky.
23. A 1-gallon gas can (empty) which can be used to bring fuel from a gas station.
24. A roll of duct tape or hose repair tape for temporary repairs to a vehicle hose leaking coolant. This can also be used to secure loose trim as a result of a minor accident.
25. Breaker bar. (18-24 inches long, ½-inch drive) for use with ½-inch drive extension bar and sockets to “break” (loosen) lug nuts when the gap around “aftermarket” wheels’ lug nut holes is too small for lug wrench fit. It’s good to have a ½-inch drive ratchet wrench, or old-fashioned “speed wrench” to expedite turning and removing the nuts once they are “broken” and to expedite replacing the nuts during mounting of the spare tire rim so that the nuts are snug. Breaker bar then is useful when tightening the lug nuts.
26. Socket (½-inch drive) for use with breaker bar, ratchet wrench, extension bar, and speed wrench to fit lug nuts. Deep socket adds flexibility when lugs protrude significantly beyond lug nuts (occurs often on heavy duty vans and pickups).
27. Extension bar (best length depends on your wheel configuration) for ½-inch drive with socket. Critical when must access nuts in a deep dish wheel. Extension bars can be joined end-to-end for increased standoff.
28. Set of two tough plastic wheel chocks to place under wheel diagonally opposite the one with flat tire to prevent the vehicle from rolling while being lifted and while jacked up.
29. Can of “PB Penetrating Catalyst” to spray on stubborn/rusted nuts to facilitate removal. This stuff works like magic.
30. Gallon of water in case the engine cooling system has run low, and for long trips – especially in hot weather or in mountains - if your vehicle’s engine has shown any inclination to overheat. Be extremely careful when adding fluid to a hot cooling system, to prevent being scalded. Use an old towel and heavy gloves while removing the cap to the cooling system (wait a while, say 20 minutes, for the heat to dissipate). Your water also can be used to refill cells of vehicle batteries, which need this fluid in order to acquire and retain a charge.
31. Extra quart of engine oil, in case the engine overheats and turns out to be low on oil.
32. Funnels to prevent waste and spills when pouring fuel, oil, water or coolant.
33. Speed wrench to facilitate quick unscrewing and removal of loosened lug nuts, and later, screwing on and replacing lug nuts until they are snug - - before tightening the nuts using a breaker bar.