Every summer, millions of British drivers set off in the car for their annual holiday. It’s an exciting time, but sometimes in the rush to get away simple car checks can be overlooked. And for thousands of drivers, the holiday is ruined by unexpected problems with their car – most of which could have been avoided.
I know the problems that strike drivers’ cars most frequently. So follow these simple car checks designed to prevent your car conking out when you need it the most.
Have your car serviced
I’m not suggesting that if you had your car serviced just before Christmas and you’ve only covered 4000 miles since you should have it serviced again. But if your car is due or nearly due a service, having it done before you go on holiday is a simple way of ensuring that your car is in tip top condition for your forthcoming road trip.
A service doesn’t just make your car less likely to break down by replacing various vital components that may be nearing the end of their life. It can also ensure that you’re getting maximum miles per gallon on your trip, which helps save money.
Simple car checks: Tyres
Tyres are arguably the most important piece of safety equipment on a car, so it pays to look after them. First use a tread depth gauge to measure the amount of tread left on each tyre. The legal minimum is 1.6mm but safety experts say you should consider changing tyres when the tread wears down to 3mm.
Next, check the tyre pressures. You will find the manufacturer’s recommended pressures in your car’s handbook and on either the fuel filler flap or inside the driver’s door pillar. There will be two different sets of pressures: a normal setting for light loads, and one that will be higher for a car that’s fully laden with people and luggage. You’ll probably want to choose the latter. Finally examine each tyre carefully. They shouldn’t have bulges, cracks or tears anywhere in them. Remember to check both sides of the tyre.
More about checking your tyres
Simple car checks: Engine oil
You need to check your car’s oil level. If it doesn’t have enough oil, there’s a very real danger the engine could seize up. If unsure, you will find where your dipstick is in the owner’s handbook. Some cars have old-school physical dipsticks, some have electronic ones that you access via the car’s computer.
Simple car checks: Coolant
When you go on holiday, you’ll hopefully be driving in a warmer climate than ours. Equally, you’re likely to be covering long distances and your car may be stationary for periods of time under hot sun as you queue for motorway tolls. Your engine will be getting hot with no air to cool it. That puts a strain on your car’s cooling system so make sure the coolant in the bottle is between the Min and Max markers to give it the best possible chance of doing its job. Check the handbook for detailed advice.
Simple car checks: Screen wash
If you’re covering plenty of miles, your windscreen is going to get dirty, particularly in the summer when the insects are out. Having water in the washer bottle is simply going to smear the remains of these creatures over your screen; proper screen wash has a fighting chance of shifting some of them. Top your washer bottle up with the correct amount of screen wash and keep some in the boot in case you run out while you’re away.
Filling your car with screen wash
Simple car checks: Lights
Check all your lights before you set off. Foreign police can be very quick to hand out on-the-spot fines for blown bulbs so don’t give them the opportunity.
Simple car checks: Kit for driving abroad
And that brings me onto the kit you need for driving abroad. You must have your lights adjusted for driving on the continent. On some modern cars, you can do this via the car’s computer. On others you still need the old-style stick-on beam benders that you can buy over the internet, from motor retailers, or if you don’t mind paying top dollar, from ferry ports. A few cars require a visit to a garage to have them adjusted.
Your car should also have a GB sticker. Many new cars have this incorporated into the European Union flag on their number plates. If they don’t, again, you can buy stickers from motor retailers.
Nervous about driving abroad?
Our recent research showed one in three of us wouldn’t contemplate driving abroad because we’re afraid of driving on the wrong side of the road, getting lost or breaking down. Doing your homework about where you’re thinking of driving abroad can remove most of the fears. For more information go to our European driving hub. This has all the information you need in one place so you can be clear on the rules of the road abroad. Also, think about getting a sat nav. This should take the worry out of getting lost.
And don’t forget insurance cover
Your UK motor insurance may not give anything other than the absolute minimum amount of cover when driving abroad. Check with your insurer before you go. And make sure you have break down cover in place. That way you don’t have to worry about the ‘what ifs’ of breaking down.
* Nick Reid is a fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry and head of transformation at Green Flag