With everything going on in the world, the last thing you should worry about is your car. You bought it after doing all your homework; you dutifully read the reviews and reliability studies and made sure the manufacturer had a great reputation. But now every news outlet is reporting on dangerous recalls and you're left wondering if you will be dialing 911 in the middle of your next Sunday drive. How did it come to this, and how do you protect yourself?
The truth is that cars today, while more reliable than ever, are complicated machines. Parts and even entire sections of cars are made all over the world by a network of suppliers beyond the direct quality control of the big car companies. They are tested and checked to meet stringent safety requirements, but sometimes things do fall through the cracks. Witness proud Toyota, who built its reputation on quality; yet the accelerator problem is only one of many quality issues that came to light in recent months. If it can happen to Toyota, who is exempt?
It is not clear if Toyota knew in advance that the accelerator problems had not been fixed by the recent floor mat recall. If that turns out to be the case, I imagine there will be some serious repercussions. However, before we form an angry mob outside their corporate offices, let's talk about what we do ourselves.
Do you keep your vehicle properly serviced? That little brochure with the sexy cover shot of your car looking all new and expensive is in the glove box for a reason. It likes to be read regularly! Be sure to refresh your memory as to when your next service is due because following the manufacturer's suggested schedule for maintenance is the single most important thing you can do for your car - and yourself.
How about brakes and tires? Rotating tires and changing brake pads are up there with spring cleaning or regular flossing as not high on people's list of priorities. However, the tires and brakes are the things connecting you to (and keeping you on) the road. While traveling at high speeds, you want to make sure they are able to do their jobs.
If you do happen to be traveling at velocity and your accelerator sticks, don't panic. Instead, apply firm braking and put the car in neutral. If you can't get it into neutral, turn it off and guide your car to the side of the road. Do not attempt to take your key out of the ignition since that can freeze the steering.
Going back to the recall issue, does your car's manufacturer know how to reach you? There was a very high profile recall recently where a huge percentage of the people affected never found out about it. The car company simply couldn't track them all down. There are obvious safety reasons for staying in touch. If you have moved or lost touch with your local dealer, contact them and make sure they know where you are. Alternatively, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) has a website where you can hunt for recall information. Or, register for free recall alerts at DriverSide.com. They will email you if a recall comes up for your specific make and model so you won't have to hope that snail mail finds you. DriverSide will also send you service alerts for things like oil changes so you won't miss them either.
If you are buying a new car, do your homework first with Consumer Reports or online. If you are buying a used car, be sure you research it's past. Experian has a good service called AutoCheck or get a free vehicle history report from Vin History.
The average age of automobiles in the US has been rising and is close to 10 years. While 10 may be the new five, your car is not going to stay young without some help. Particularly now that economic concerns are forcing us to hold onto our cars even longer, we all have to relearn how to maintain these complex machines. The best advice on offer is to be proactive about maintaining your car and proactive about protecting yourself.