Modern car safety systems do a fantastic job of protecting you in the event of an emergency, but there’s not a lot of point having them if other aspects of your car are unsafe. So what sort of things can you do and should you be checking on your car to make sure you stay safe?
Car safety is not a sexy subject. For a lot of people people, cars today are just like most other appliances and commodities. We pay precious little attention to maintaining them, and are always surprised when they break. So what should you be doing to make sure your car is as safe as it can be?
Well, there are the completely obvious things first, which get overlooked with surprising regularity:
- Clear your car interior of any objects which are not firmly secured. Anything which can roll around under the brake pedal or could go flying under braking is a real danger and should be safely stored in the glovebox or boot
- Make sure all of your windows, lights and mirrors are clean from dirt and bugs at all times. How many dirty cars have you seen with a rear windscreen that is completely covered in dust or mud? (Here’s a clue – if kids can write “Clean Me” on your rear window, take their advice). If you can’t see properly through the windows, or the headlights can’t light up the road properly, your ability to judge what’s going on around you is impaired and you are more likely to have an accident
- Strange noises, vibrations and warning lights need to be attended to rather than ignored. Chances are that they will not simply go away, and you don’t want the engine to cut out just as you are pulling out into a busy road.
There are a few important areas of car safety that are easy to check and should be checked regularly, and you don’t have to have any kind of mechanical understanding to be able to do this:
- Check your tyre pressures regularly. Know how much air should be in your tyres and where the placard with that information is located. If you are going away on holiday with a fully loaded car, it is normally recommend you run higher tyre pressures. Low tyre pressure will increase tyre wear and affect your steering in an emergency (and also uses a lot more fuel).
- Check your tyre tread depth periodically. A new tyre will have 8mm of tread, and when you get to less 2mm it is definitely time for new tyres (legal limit in the UK is 1.6mm). Your tyres should ideally all be the same brand and specification, so they are all performing in a similar manner whatever the conditions.
- While you’re checking your tread, check the overall tyre condition. If you have crunched your wheels on a kerb or hit a pothole at speed, it may have damaged the tyre and/or wheel. If you see any bulges or tears in the tyre, get it checked immediately.
It is important to buy the best tyres you can afford. More expensive tyres are engineered to a higher standard, and will give better grip and braking performance than budget tyres.
- As above, if you have hit a pothole or kerb hard enough, it can damage the wheel itself. Scratches in the wheel surface are usually OK, but if you see even a faint crack, get the wheel looked at immediately.
- Periodically check that your wheel nuts are tight, especially if you have recently changed any tyre, or if the car has had any servicing work done. Recently a client of mine heard a clunking noise coming from one of the wheels of the used car she had bought only days before, and discovered that one of the wheel nuts was missing and two others were loose. Under heavy braking or swerving, it is possible the wheel could have come off or broken and caused a big accident.
- If you feel any vibration in the steering wheel or overall ride of the car, the wheels may need balancing. Again, potholes can easily knock a wheel out of balance, which can lead to a tyre or wheel failure later on.
- If the car is pulling to the left or right when you are driving in a straight line, the wheels may need aligning. A wheel alignment will make sure the car tracks perfectly straight at all times. A car which pulls to one side will increase wear and tear on suspension, steering components and tyres. Or it can cause an accident if you get distracted momentarily and find that the car has changed lanes while you weren’t watching.
Alloy wheels – especially large ones – are more susceptible to cracking than steel wheels, which are more likely to deform rather than breaking. Either way, it will potentially affect the safety of the car and needs to be investigated.
- Brake pads wear out over time and need to be replaced. It is not easy to see when the pads have worn down, but the brake pedal will progressively get softer and the car will take longer to stop from a given speed. When you have the car serviced, the garage’s report will usually tell you how worn your brake pads are. If you can hear squealing under braking, or the brake pedal judders under your foot as you brake, the pads may need to be replaced or the discs may be warped and need machining.
Repairing and maintaining a car is always expensive, but it’s still preferable to having an accident, where the cost of damage could well be the least of your problems. Keep your car in good running order and you will be much safer.
Further reading on car safety
What Makes A Car Safe? – Part 1: The Car Expert looks at ‘passive car safety’ and how a car behaves in a crash to protect you.
What Makes A Car Safe? – Part 2: The Car Expert looks at ‘active car safety’ and what your car does to help you avoid a crash.
This article was first published in November 2011, and has been updated in September 2015 for freshness and relevance.