Maintenance Check: Everything But the Engine

Pre-flight safety inspection for your car or light truck

In the last segment of “Maintenance Check: Under the Hood”, we examined some of the things you need to inspect before embarking on a serious (or even not so serious) road trip with your car or light truck. For us, at least, road trips are an adventure. But fixing your vehicle on the side of the road shouldn’t be part of it. Last time, we spent time under the hood. This time, we’ll look at the rest of the vehicle.

Vehicle Load, Tire Pressure & Tire Condition

Virtually all late model motor vehicles are equipped with a placard located on the latch side of the driver door or the door lock pillar. That placard determines maximum vehicle capacity. That capacity is the weight of the vehicle along with the combined weight of all passengers and all cargo, including the luggage compartment load. Never exceed the recommended load. Certain vehicles also spell out maximum luggage compartment loads. Never exceed those loads either.

On the load placard is a tire pressure chart. It shows the hot and cold maximum pressures for the OEM-size tires fitted to your vehicle. Typically, the cold inflation pressures provide for the best balance of fuel economy, handling, ride comfort and tire life under normal conditions. FYI, cold pressure is where the car or truck has not been driven more than one mile after sitting three hours or more. It is normal for tire pressure to increase between 4-8 pounds once the tires are heated from driving. If checking or setting pressures "hot" then it's a good idea to add 4 PSI over the "cold" pressure figure, or simply use the "hot" pressure figure found on the door placard.

Tire tread depth should also be inspected. If tires are worn to a point where less than 2/32-inch of the tread remains, or if the cord or fabric is showing, it's time to change the tires. Today's tires are equipped with built-in tread wear indicators that appear when the tread depth is less than the 2/32-inch figure (these indicators are rubber "strips" that run across the face of the tread. When these indicators appear in two or more adjacent grooves at three spots around the tire, it's time to buy new tires. And yes, you can use the old penny trick too: If you place Lincoln's head (on the penny) into the tread, and it comes to his head, there's usually sufficient tread remaining.

While examining tires, look over each tire for cracks or cuts. If any are sufficient to expose the cord or fabric, the tire needs to be replaced. On a similar note, if a tire has a bump, bulge or split, it must be replaced.

Lights & Horn

Before venturing anywhere, you should go over all light/lamp functions. Turn on the headlights. Check park lamps; high and low beam lamps and the license plate light. Next, check the turn signals (all four corners) and follow up with an inspection of the emergency flashers. With help (or with the vehicle backed up against a wall where you can see the lights), apply the foot brake and check the brake lights. Finally, place the vehicle in reverse (with the park brake on) and check the back up lights. If any bulbs are burned out, or if there is a lighting problem, it's obviously time for a repair. Next up, simply tap the horn. It does work, doesn't it? If not, have a mechanic repair it.

Windshield Wipers

Test the wiper operation. It's a good idea to mist the windshield with water or washer fluid prior to testing their operation. Check the high and low speed functions and at the same time, test the operation of the washer system.

Turn the wipers off and inspect the windshield wiper blades for wear, cracking and/or contamination. Worn blades should be replaced. To clean wiper blades, simply wipe with a lint free cloth or paper towel soaked in windshield washer fluid or a mild detergent (for example, car wash soap). Wash the windshield thoroughly when cleaning the blades. Wiper blades can be damaged by extreme dust conditions, heat and sun, sand and salt and by snow and ice.

Should blade replacement be required, consult the owner's manual. Different cars mandate different types of replacement procedures. Similarly, replacement blades sometimes come in different formats and removed and installed in different ways.

Park Brake

Park the vehicle on a relatively steep hill (in a remote location). With the vehicle nose pointing downhill, and your foot on the service brake, set the park brake. Keep the engine running, and shift the transmission into neutral. Slowly remove your foot from the service brake. The park brake should hold the vehicle. If the vehicle moves, then it's time to have the park brake system serviced.

Spare Tire

Spare tires can lose pressure over time. Because of this, it's a good idea to not only check the pressure of the spare, you should also insure it isn't damaged. This is particularly important in light trucks where the tire may be stored in a vulnerable location (for example, under the truck box). Tire pressure should be same as the rest of the tires (cold) if the spare is a full size model. If the tire is a compact spare, then pressures are often greater. Typically, compact spares are designed to operate at 60-PSI or greater. Recommended pressure for the compact spare will be displayed on the tire sidewall. Keep in mind that compact spares are for temporary use only. You can expect a tread life of no more than 3,000 miles on such a tire, depending upon road conditions. If it has seen use, check the tread wear and the condition, referring to the procedures used to examine tires (above).

Once you've checked the spare, ensure it is properly secured. Cars and light trucks often have jacking and spare tire stowage instructions on the deck lid or adjacent to the jack stowage location. A loose spare tire and jack is dangerous in the event of a collision. Secure them.

Jack, Jacking Tools

It's a very good idea to take stock of the jack and all associated jacking tools (for example, the lug nut wrench). Using the owner's manual (or the jack stowage instructions mentioned above), check to be sure all of the various components are in place and in good working order. Most often, the jack system will include a scissor style jack, with a built in load pad, and a combination wheel wrench/jack handle. If your vehicle has accessory locking wheel nuts or hub cap locks, ensure the key is available and ensure it fits and functions (and is in the car or truck!). Nothing is more frustrating than attempting to repair a flat, and finding the wheel is locked in place with no key. It's also a good idea to check to ensure that the wrench actually fits the lug nuts. If the vehicle has been fitted with aftermarket wheels, in many cases, the lug nut hex size differs from the OEM wrench size. If that's the case, be sure you carry an appropriately sized wheel wrench (one that fits the hex). Finally, if the car or truck has aftermarket wheels, in many cases, the lug nuts differ from those used on the original equipment spare. Be sure you have the appropriate number of OEM lug nuts on hand (in the car) to the fit the spare.


Walk around the car or truck a couple of times. Look for the obvious: If it has exposed lug nuts, are they all in place? Are any visibly loose? Is all window glass in good condition? Are there any apparent fluid leaks under the car? With the engine running and the park brake set, are there any exhaust leaks? Check under the car for exhaust system leaks too. Are all of the mirrors intact? Do all of the locks and latches (doors, hood, deck lid) work properly? Is there any loose trim? Are the license plates or vehicle registration (depending upon the country/state) current? Is the insurance current?

If everything in this list (along with the previous segment) passes, you're ready to hit the open road. Enjoy it.

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