Thursday, November 20, 2014

Vehicle safety report

Yesterday afternoon, 12 students and one instructor from PS 2003 Physics, Mechanics and Energy performed safety checks and pulled trouble codes on 55 student and staff vehicles, a record for this activity.

We checked lights, fluid levels, tire wear, and tire pressure. We also "pulled" check engine light "trouble codes" using a laptop-based code-puller device, and dispensed advice as to what to do about them.

Several more dangerous safety concerns were noted that would have almost certainly related in a winter travel "fail" and possibly a stranding, or worse, an accident. They are detailed here along with further instructions to help educate college community members about vehicle safety:
  • Several vehicles with disturbing low engine oil level. We added up to two quarts of oil. By the time a four-quart oil sump is down to two quarts, there's only half the oil there should be circulating to do the job of cooling and lubricating the engine. If you are losing or using oil like this, you should monitor your oil every time you add gas to the tank, and find out where the oil is going. You want to know.
  • Several "customers" reporting "not worried" or "not bothered" by check engine lights being on. The problem with this theory is that the check engine light may come on one day for something fairly safe, say a small leak in the evaporative emissions system, but while the light is on, a more problematic defect can occur, and the driver never know. If your check engine light is on, you should find out what the codes mean. If you choose to ignore the defect, you then need to regularly pull check engine codes, in case an additional defect occurs while the light is already on.
  • Many vehicles had tires that had only a millimeter or two of tread remaining. Several had completely bald tires. The Maine regulations require at least a millimeter all round, but this isn't nearly enough for Maine winter driving conditions, especially in a rear-wheel drive vehicle. These vehicles are extremely dangerous. These students were advised to get new all-weather or winter tires, and, until then, not to drive at all in snow storms.
  • Several customers reported that they had to "try" to make it through the winter with touring tires, some of which were worn out as above. These types of tires, which are made of much harder material than all weather or winter tires to last longer, and tend to have linear tread patterns for low road noise, are only adequate for Maine winter driving after all snow is cleared from the road.
  • At least three vehicles had one or more tires with dangerously low tire pressure. When your tire pressure drops below 15 pounds per square inch or so, the wheel can no longer keep straight on the road and that corner of the vehicle will wobble dangerously on corners. The best that can happen is that you wear out a tire prematurely. The worst that can happen is that you get a nasty wobble at high speed on a corner or while passing on a highway. This can lead to loss of control, and even a rollover accident. The remedy is to check your tire pressure more frequently. If the pressure in one or more tires is regularly down, you have a slow leak. Take it to a shop and get the leak fixed. This should only cost around thirty dollars, much cheaper than an accident.
  • One vehicle had been driven with low tire pressure on one tire for many miles. In addition to ensuring very poor steering and handling -- the tire was in a front drive wheel -- this tire was prematurely worn out. A vehicle driven long miles with low air pressure will wear out the edge of the tire before the middle. See these pictures here.
  • One vehicle with dangerously high tire pressures, above 40 psi. The correct tire pressure is not the maximum tire pressure written on the tire. It's the recommended tire pressure given in the owner's manual or written on a small sticker on the drivers-side door. Too much air in your tires can be dangerous too, just like too little air. You'll bounce more very time you hit a bump, and can bounce yourself clean off the road. You'll also wear out your tires unevenly, and have poorer traction in snow.
  • Various vehicles check engine lights for oxygen sensor.
An interesting new phenomenon was that at least seven customers were not able to turn on their headlight high beams for checking. Two were not able to turn on their headlights. Automatic photo-voltaic-operated headlight switches that turn the lights on when it gets dark seem to be the source. Suburban living negates the need for high beams. However in Maine high beams are needed to avoid hitting deer and other animals. We recommend that drivers familiarize themselves with all their vehicles controls, using the owner's manual. For students that have older cars and no longer have the manual, most are now available online.

That concludes our 2014 winter vehicle safety report.

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