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Safety on the roads: Basic car maintenance

By Lauren Merryweather

We asked our Which? Trusted traders to outline the most essential, quick checks drivers can carry out to make sure their car is road worthy.
Essential car maintenance

It’s Road Safety Week, and although many drivers consider themselves responsible on the roads, how about when it comes to the safety of their car?

All drivers are responsible for ensuring their vehicle is safe, but it’s not necessary to know the ins and outs of car mechanics. There are a few quick, simple checks you can carry out regularly to prevent accidents and avoid inconvenient breakdowns – and, if necessary, most common issues are easy and cheap to fix. 

We asked our Which? Trusted traders to outline the most essential, quick checks drivers can carry out to make sure their car is road worthy.

While all these checks are covered in an annual MOT by a trusted mechanic, none can be guaranteed to last for an entire year because of general wear and tear, so you should check regularly.

1. Tyre condition. You can do the easiest check of all by simply looking at the tyres. Is there any visible damage, bulging or sharp debris stuck in the tread? Do any tyres look dull and worn? Pick up a ruler and measure the tread depth. 1.6mm is the legal limit, but it’s strongly advised that tyres are changed before they’re worn down this far.

2. Oil level. Oil keeps engine parts lubricated so they run smoothly, and letting the oil run out can cause instant engine failure on the road. It’s a good idea to check levels regularly and before a long journey. Yes, modern cars have a warning light on the dashboard that will show up when oil levels are low, but ideally drivers shouldn’t let it get to this stage. If the warning light comes on, don’t leave it too long before topping up.

3. Water levels and coolant. As essential as oil for keeping the engine running, a mix of water and coolant is pumped around the engine to stop it from overheating. The coolant keeps the water cool as it flows around the hot engine. Without it, the car will overheat, causing serious engine damage and posing a fire risk. The coolant also acts as antifreeze, stopping the water freezing in lower temperatures. The vehicle manual will explain which type of coolant you should use, and how much. The reservoir is usually visible, and it’s easy to see if levels are low.

4. Lights. Lights and signals that don’t work, because of bulbs that are out or faulty cable connections, cause accidents. Take a quick walk around the car with the engine on to check that headlights, fog lights, indicators and brake lights are all working. Someone will need to help check the brake lights for you while you’re pressing the brakes, or alternatively you can check the lights in the reflection in a window while stationary.

5. Wipers. Smeary windows can significantly reduce already poor visibility in bad weather. It’s easy and cheap to replace worn-out wipers.

6. Tyre pressure. Uneven or low tyre pressure makes tyres less effective at gripping the road, which can be dangerous - especially in wet and icy conditions. Low pressure also means the tyres will wear out more quickly, and makes a car less fuel efficient. Over- inflated tyres are also a problem, increasing your braking distance and causing uneven wear. Check your vehicle manual for the correct tyre pressure, and use a pump with a gauge to inflate them to the right level. Many petrol stations have a gauged air pump which you can use free of charge, or for a small fee.

You can always leave more thorough checks of your vehicle to an endorsed mechanic, including the annual MOT.

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