Summer weather and road trips go together, but is your car ready for the road -- and summertime heat?
See whether your wheels can pass this pre-flight checklist:
Lights and signals
Have a friend/family member do a "walk-around" of your vehicle as you tap the brakes, turn on the headlights/high beams, activate the turn signals and emergency flashers. Replace any burned-out bulbs -- including the small LEDs that many cars have for the "third brake light." It's safer -- and you'll avoid getting pulled over for a "defective equipment" ticket. Also -- if you hit any bad potholes over the winter (or had a minor fender-bender accident) it's a good idea to have the car's headlights checked for proper alignment/aim. Any shop that does state safety inspections can do this for you.
Wipe blades/washer fluid
If the blades haven't been replaced since last fall sometime, it's a fair bet they're doing more streaking than clearing. A new set of blades is a small price to pay to see where you're going in a downpour. New blades are not hard to install -- and if you prefer not to do it yourself, some car parts stores (Advance Auto, for example) will do it for you free of charge if you purchase the blades there. Top off the washer fluid jar while you're at it.
Tires (and spare)
Check all four for proper inflation and any signs of physical damage, such as bulges in the sidewall, tears or nails in the tread. Never drive on under-inflated, damaged -- or worn out -- tires. And don't forget to check the condition of the spare, too -- including its pressure, if it's a standard/full-size tire. A flat spare tire is not much better than no spare at all. Also: Make sure you've got an appropriate lug nut wrench and jack to raise the car, if the need arises. People sometimes take out the factory jack/lug wrench to clean the trunk -- or make some extra room -- then forget to put these important items back where they belong.
Now (before it gets really hot) is also a good time time to check the operation of your car's air conditioning system. If it doesn't begin to blow cold air almost as soon as it's turned on (or you think it doesn't feel as cold as it used to), the system may have developed a slow leak and be low on refrigerant -- or have some other problem that developed over the winter. Beat the inevitable rush of people to the shop by checking your AC system as soon as the weather starts to warm up.
Muffler and exhaust
Road salt eats metal almost as quickly as it melts snow on the road. Mufflers and exhaust pipes are especially vulnerable -- particularly if they aren't stainless steel. It's a good idea to check the physical condition of your vehicle's exhaust system for any signs of structural problems, such as looseness of any component or visible damage. Any change in the sound of your vehicle's exhaust is another clue that it's time to have it checked over before you take any extended trips. Losing a muffler on the highway at 70 mph (and 200-something miles into a family vacation) is about as fun as day-old cold coffee in the waiting room of a sketchy repair shop in some unfamiliar town.
Battery and charging system
If your vehicle (or the battery that's in it) is more than four years old, it's wise to have the condition of the battery checked by your dealer (or mechanic) before you find yourself needing jumper cables -- or AAA. While batteries can last as long as six or even seven years under light-load conditions, on average, they tend to begin losing their ability to hold a full charge after about 4-5 years of "normal" (that is, every day) service. It's a good idea to keep a set of jumper cables in the trunk, too. You may never need them -- but will be very happy to have them if you ever do.
Be sure all your "paperwork" is up to date and available/on display before heading out of state (or even out of the driveway). That includes current vehicle registration and property tax stickers, insurance card and state safety inspection decal (where applicable). Many people inadvertently forget about one or more of these items -- and end up getting an expensive ticket for their trouble.
It's a smart move to keep a small writing pad, along with pencils (not pens, which can dry out) in your glovebox, so you'll have a way to write down important stuff like details about a traffic stop (which can be very useful in court if you decide to fight the ticket), an address or phone number -- and so on. An "emergency use" cell phone is another great glovebox item to have available -- as is a small bottle of aspirin (or equivalent) and two or three dollars in loose change (not bills) so you'll have a way to use coin-operated vending machines (and phones) if that's all that's available -- and when they don't take plastic or paper money.