Maintenance Basics for Teens

Bengt Halvorson
Maintenance Basics for Teens

So you're going to have a new driver in the family. Standard Driver's ED courses may have already taught your son or daughter the basics of how to drive, but they seldom teach teens what they really need to know to keep a car running right, so as to avoid costly repairs and keep safe from roadside breakdowns and other mishaps.

Trouble is, many young drivers don't know -- or even care -- how a car works, or what they need to do to keep it working. There are some, admittedly, who are real gearheads, but most teens have other concerns, like clubs, sports, or their image to the opposite sex.

They may be fascinated with the car as a symbol of independence, and as an appliance, but that's it. They get in, turn the key, and it goes. How do you enforce the importance of proper maintenance? As we cover below, helping to educate them is a big start to success.

In the interest of your son or daughter's happiness and safety -- and your wallet -- do the following before you even let them take to the roads:

Show them the basics under the hood. This doesn't have to be complicated. Show your son or daughter around the hood. Show them where the engine is, the alternator, the battery, the transmission, the radiator. If you don't know where everything is, at Middle Country Automotive in Selden or Centereach, we will be glad to show both of you. Follow up by showing where the items that need the most frequent attention are, like the oil dipstick and filler, the coolant reservoir, and the washer fluid bottle.

Check the spare. Teens tend to drive older vehicles in general, and the condition of the spare is important. Earl Baker, of AAA Approved Auto Repair, says, "Make sure the spare tire in their car has air in it. It's something that's almost always completely overlooked." It may be completely deflated or unusable, or missing altogether. If it's an older car that was bought used, make sure the spare is there, along the jack, and test the jack to make sure it's the correct one and fits the car at the right jacking point.

Set the emergency kit. You should have an emergency toolkit and a first-aid kit in your car, no matter how old the car is or if you only drive around town. Make sure your teen driver knows where the kit is and what's inside. It should include flares, emergency triangles, and a blanket.

Get the paperwork in order. "Make sure they have the proper insurance papers and registration in the vehicle, that they know where they are, and that they're updated. Young people tend to get involved in more minor fender-benders, too, and it only complicates matters," advised Baker. Make sure your inspections are up to date as well. Middle Country Automotive is an official DMV nys auto inspection center. Being able to present the proper documents can help reduce the chances of headaches later on when it comes time to make a claim. Tape a cheat sheet inside the glovebox door for your son or daughter, with who to call, what to say, and what to present.

Give them a cellphone for emergencies, or at least keep a cellphone in the car, but make them promise never to use it while driving. Finally, remind your teen driver about distraction. Inexperience cancels out any advantage that the new driver might have in reaction time. Strictly ban them from driving while talking on the cell phone, eating, or drinking or texting. Also place limits on friends who can ride along.

Now that your new driver is familiar with the car, they'll need to know what to do, and how often. "We don't want them to become a hazard on the road when normal maintenance could have avoided it," said Kathy Downing, manager of driver services for the Auto Club, an AAA affiliate for Southern California.

Here are some maintenance concerns that should be addressed on a regular basis:

Check the oil. Many teen drivers make it out on the road with no idea how to check the oil, let alone that they should check it at every other fill-up. Some don't even wonder about it until the low oil light flickers and damage has already been done. Make sure they know how to read the dipstick, that the engine needs to be off, and that the car should be parked on level ground. Go over the procedure on what kind of oil to add and how, being careful not to add too much.

Check the tires. Inspect the tread for wear, embedded objects, cracking, or exposed belt material. Check the pressure every other time you fill up with fuel. Consult with the pressures on the inside of the driver's doorsill or inside the fuel filler door.

Battery. A dying battery will likely fail on one of the coldest or hottest days, Especially if a battery is more than a couple of years old, check frequently for a buildup of corrosion. Beware that some batteries still require checking the level and adding water as necessary.

Coolant. When you have the hood open, show your son or daughter where the coolant reservoir bottle is, and make sure it's in the acceptable range. It's an easy check, so emphasize that failing to check and maintain the cooling system will leave you stranded on the side of the road sooner or later, probably at the least convenient time. Plus, overheats are costly and hazardous to the safety of the driver and other motorists.

Check all the lights. This is an easy thing for teens to check on their own. For checking the back-up lights, taillights, and brake lights, a strip-mall building at night with big windows may work well. Just back tail-in to a space, set the parking brake, and turn off the engine then bring the ignition key to the 'on' position without starting the engine. Run through all the lights, looking at their reflection. Good idea to check through them all once a month.

Keep the windshield clean. "Just a dirty windshield could cause big problems," said Downing. It's hard to stress the importance of visibility enough. Make sure there's a fresh set of wipers and that the washer bottle under the hood is topped off on a regular basis with washer fluid, not water. There's a difference: Water combines with road grime to help make wipers smear, while washer fluid helps keep them clean. On another note, never set out on a cold morning without first scraping or wiping the frost or dew off the windshield, windows, and lights.

Then there are some important maintenance-minded habits for every time your son or daughter gets behind the wheel:

Do a walk-around. Sherry Goodloe, senior instructor with the Auto Club, says, "We do a walk-around the first lesson…then, each subsequent lesson, before getting in the car we have them do the walkaround" to spot anything unusual, especially eyeing the windows, tires, and front and back ends. In the quick check, they may find a flat before damaging the wheel, or, for instance, an object, child, or pet behind the car.

Look down at the gauges and idiot lights. Some cars come with a set of thorough gauges, while others only have a set of "idiot lights" that remind the driver when the engine is already overheating or when it's dangerously low in oil or oil pressure. If you have gauges, remind your son or daughter where the normal range is, and that if any of the idiot lights ever comes on, to pull over at the next safe place and call for advice.

Listen to the engine. When your young driver is learning, don't allow loud music; best not to listen to anything but the symphony of the road. "No matter what the vehicle, it's important to know what the vehicle is supposed to be like when it's running as normal," added Dave Skaien senior instructor with the Auto Club Driving School . Skaien said that if a driver is more familiar with the normal sounds of the vehicle, he or she will be much more likely to recognize when something is wrong and avoid a breakdown or accident. If you suspect something may be wrong with your engine, schedule an appointment at our Selden or Centereach locations today!

Get the car inspected at least once every year. Again, because teens tend to drive older vehicles this is especially important. Whatever the model, Skaien said, "You should have the vehicle thoroughly inspected and repaired to make it worthy to drive. All of this should be done by a qualified mechanic." If the young driver isn't capable of paying for this, or bringing it up to safe and reliable running condition, he or she probably shouldn't own a vehicle.

Establish the responsibilities

Parents and children have different expectations about car privileges and the financial responsibilities of driving -- and each family situation is different, too, so it's important to establish these responsibilities before something happens. The AAA officials agreed on one thing: before a teen driver gets car privileges, parents and child need to meet and come up with a contract, so it's understood what the young driver is expected to pay for and when they are allowed to use the car. If the new driver will have his or her own car, try to estimate what the maintenance expenses are going to be before he or she drowns in them.

If you're still worrying -- and right you should -- consider a driving school that teaches new drivers about cars and driving and accident avoidance. Don't rely on a simple Internet search for this. Ask your insurance agent, high school, car club, or the DMV.

Remember, the most effective way of getting the strategy to work is by inflicting an adult-like level of responsibility and accountability, and by clearly calling out the rules in advance. As is the case with all aspects of teen driving, set a good example. If you keep your own vehicle in good shape and are prepared for breakdowns or mishaps, it's more likely that your son or daughter will be, too.

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