Avoiding a breakdown

Car drivers may be able to avoid an unnecessary breakdown if they familiarise themselves with their owner’s handbook and have their vehicle serviced regularly.

The RAC attends to around 2.5 million breakdowns a year. The most common faults are caused by a lack of maintenance or understanding of the car’s systems. For example, a simple routine like checking your tyres for damage and the correct pressure, as recommended by the manufacturer, may prevent you from returning to your vehicle to find a flat tyre or – even worse – experiencing a blow out on the motorway.

RAC does recommend basic maintenance of your vehicle. This leaflet includes some useful checks to help you maintain your vehicle and minimise the risk of a breakdown or accident and to ensure the car meets legal requirements.

RAC does not recommend more complex maintenance – such as changing spark plugs or fan belt replacement to name only two – unless you are an experienced mechanic or you have an older vehicle where those jobs are not so difficult. Modern vehicles are more complex and inexperienced DIY maintenance could do more harm than good – particularly where electronic injection systems or safety related aspects such as braking systems are involved. In such cases RAC advises you visit your local dealer.
For certain breakdown faults, we have added a few basic tips at the end of this leaflet to allow you to try to tackle the problem. These will not damage your vehicle and may save you time.
A good example of how breakdown analysis has assisted the motorist is the audible warning signal, available in many vehicles today, used to indicate when lights have been left on: the large number of breakdowns and flat batteries caused by lights left on encouraged the development of this useful device.

Maintenance checks
Check your vehicle is regularly serviced (consult your owner’s handbook for recommended intervals). It can be all too easy to overlook the correct service date
Examine the operation of all exterior lights to ensure they comply with any legal requirements. All headlights and indicator lenses must be free from any damage such as cracks or missing glass or plastic. Remember to keep the lights clean
Check front and rear wiper blades for wear or splitting
Do check windscreen washers making sure that they are adjusted correctly. Screen wash additive is also recommended, especially in winter.Ensure all dashboard warning lights operate correctly.

Check oil and water levels. Ensure they are topped up correctly. Have the anti-freeze content of the cooling system checked, particularly in winter.If battery level is low, top up with distilled water (unless the battery is a maintenance free one). Do check the battery connections, ensuring that they are tight and free from any corrosion. Do not forget that battery acid is highly corrosive to skin and paint work
Inspect the jack and wheel brace making sure you are confident about their use. If locking wheel nuts are fitted, ensure the locking key is safely stowed away in the car. It may be useful to practise changing the spare wheel on a level surface, following the instructions in your owner’s handbook
The condition of your tyres (inc. the spare) should be checked for pressure and tread depth. The current minimum legal tread depth for cars and light commercial vehicles is 1.6mm around the total circumference of the tyre
Inspect car keys for wear and replace if necessary. A worn key will quickly wear out a lock barrel and cause the lock to jam. It is worth noting that batteries in the fob will usually require replacement at least twice a year to maintain operating performance

A few self help tips:

Flat battery
If your vehicle will not start, it may well be due to a faulty battery. If your engine tries to turn over it may not be completely dead. Check to see if any interior or exterior lights, mobile phone or your entertainment system are left on. If they are, turn them off. Leave the car standing for 20 minutes. Do not try to restart your car during that period because 20 minutes is usually enough time to allow the battery to regain enough power to start up the engine. Do get into the habit of turning off all controls – including lights, the heated rear window, and radio – before turning off the engine once parked up for the night. This will extend the life of your battery and reduce the chance of a flat battery.
Engine flooded – cold start – petrol
If your engine is turning over but the vehicle will not start, decide whether the engine is turning over quickly or very slowly. If quickly, it is possible that the engine may be flooded. Put your foot down on the accelerator all the way to the floor and crank the engine for 20 seconds. This should allow the engine to clear itself of excessive fuel. Once started take your foot off the accelerator. If the engine is turning slowly, refer to the flat battery advice given above.
Engine – cold start – diesel
If your diesel vehicle will not start, turn the ignition on and observe the glow plug light illuminating, without starting the engine (position II). Wait until the glow plug light goes off before starting and crank the engine for 20 seconds until it starts. If the engine does not start, try repeating the procedure.
Key stuck in ignition or steering lock jammed
Gently turn and wiggle the key whilst moving the steering wheel. This will often free up the key/steering lock. Sounds simple and it is.
Air conditioning and water leaks
If your vehicle is fitted with an air conditioning system you may think you have a water leak under the car. In fact, the pool of water under the vehicle may well be from the air-conditioning and not a leak from the radiator or coolant system. The fluid is condensed water and this is quite normal. A genuine coolant leak will normally contain an anti-freeze additive and will have a blue/green tint. Do not try to drive a vehicle with a coolant leak.
Automatic transmission
If you have an automatic vehicle where the engine fails to turn over when you turn the key, it is possible there is a fault with the inhibitor switch which is installed to prevent you starting the car if the gear lever is in any position other than ‘Neutral’ or ‘Park’. Select ‘Neutral’ or ‘Park’ several times and only try to start the vehicle in ‘Neutral’ or ‘Park’.
Remote key fob/immobiliser not operating
There has been much media coverage about radio waves blocking signals from car key fobs and locking owners out of their cars or failing to deactivate the immobiliser. This is a genuine problem. Open the car with the key, get in and close the door behind you and then retry the remote key fob when sitting in the car. (This keeps out the radio waves).
Keys locked in car or lost keys
More than 75,000 RAC members locked their keys inside their car during 2003. Have a spare key cut and keep it in a safe place (not in the car!). If you have a “transponder” key which sends a coded signal to the central locking, never carry the master key (usually red in colour) – leave that at home and use the ones provided by the manufacturer or get an extra one made.