Empathy and the Side of the Road

One of my closest friends is another lifelong lover of cars, although his passion relates more to engineering than to the basic nuts and bolts of cars.  Awhile back, we were driving down the freeway together and we passed someone on the side of the road with the hood up on their car.  I thought about stopping and mentioned it to my friend.  His response was, "They deserve it."  I thought that seemed more than just a little harsh.  Well, this sparked a debate as we continued on down the freeway.  His point of view was that cars give their owners plenty of warning when they're about to fail, and anyone who ignores these warnings deserves what they get.  I must admit when I'm driving in traffic at night I often glance over at the dashboards of other motorists cars, and more often than not they have a warning light on.  Someone in a lab coat designed those lights and warning systems to prevent people from ending up on the side of the road.  Now I don't want you to end up there, hence this blog and it's subsequent suggestions and ideas.  What I'd like to get across to people are a few basic vehicle warning signs that should never be ignored.
One of the biggest warnings you should never ignore is how hot your car is running.  Never, ever, under any circumstances drive your vehicle when it is overheating or about to overheat.  The engine inside most newer cars is made of aluminum.  Heat and aluminum do not get along very well.  If you overheat an aluminum engine the chances are you will warp the head and your head gasket will fail, or worse.  This can mean thousands of dollars in repairs.  If your vehicle begins to overheat, turn the heater inside your car on full blast and pull over as soon as you can.  The heater in your car pulls heat from the engine to warm the cabin, so it may buy you a few precious seconds.  If you notice your car is starting to run hot, get the problem investigated before you end up pulling off on the side of the road with steam billowing out from under your hood.  A $12 thermostat can cause huge problems and make a mess of your engine if you ignore when things get hot.
The check engine light in your car is a source of annoyance for a lot of people.  I have several friends who routinely drive their cars while the check engine light is on.  Now, the check engine light is quite often connected to the emissions system in your vehicle.  If the light goes on while you're driving, it could just mean your car is polluting more than it should.  This doesn't spell impending doom, although you still shouldn't ignore it.  Many automotive parts stores will check the computer in your car for free and tell you what the check engine light means.  They do this hoping you'll buy parts from them when you know what the problem is.  If you choose to ignore the problem after you know what is wrong that's a calculated gamble only you can make.  What you absolutely should not ignore, is when the check engine light begins to flash.  This is the car's way of getting your attention when there's a serious problem.  Ignore a flashing check engine light and you'll almost certainly end up with a giant paperweight on the side of the road.

In my opinion the biggest warning sign your car can present is low oil pressure.  This is usually displayed as a little red light with a picture of an oil can.  If this light comes on while you're driving it means the engine isn't producing enough pressure to properly lubricate it's internal parts.  This is the equivalent of having a heart attack.  Without engine oil, or oil pressure, the engine will definitely fail and leave you stranded.  When the light comes on you should do everything safely in your control to turn that engine off as quickly as possible.  This is where seconds matter as the engine can't survive without oil.  Whether it's leaked out, or burned off completely, an oil pressure warning light should never be ignored.  A good rule of thumb is to check your oil ever time you get gas, or ask the attendant to check it for you.  It's cheap insurance against a catastrophic failure.
Another thing you shouldn't ignore are strange sounds or smells.  At least once a week someone drives past me with a car that sounds like a squealing banshee.  I can't imagine how someone could drive a car like that and ignore the horrible noise being emitted from under the hood.  A $9 loose belt will squeal horribly and annoy you, but when it snaps or just falls off you could have big problems on the side of the road.  Also, if you start smelling something burning, or smell gasoline while you drive please have the problem investigated.  A long time ago I was working at a bank and one of the tellers asked me to look at her vehicle after work because she was smelling gas.  I opened the hood and saw that the o-rings around the fuel injectors had failed and raw gasoline was being pumped onto the exhaust manifold.  The exhaust maniford gets very hot while you're driving so basically she was driving a bomb.  I asked her how long she had smelled gas while driving and she said, "A few months." 
My focus here is not to make you feel bad for not maintaining your car.  I understand money can be tight and if something isn't broken then don't pump money into it.  The exceptions I've listed above do warrant your attention though to make sure you're safe and don't find yourself on a walking tour of our nation's many interstates.

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