NWautos: Seattle's local source for new and used autos


May 16, 2010 12:00 AM

A little emergency-repair knowledge can get you back in the fast lane


A dead battery or flat tire are two problems all motorists should be able to fix, says AAA. (© 2010 American Automobile Association)

Given the convenience of cellphones, AAA and OnStar, it's a wonder anyone knows how to change a tire anymore. But being able to handle an auto emergency can save you time and money and can get you back on your way as quickly as possible.

Every car owner should know how to perform basic auto repairs and diagnostics, including changing a tire, jump-starting a battery, monitoring oil and fluid levels, and checking tire pressure, says Janet Ray, a spokeswoman for AAA Washington.

Here are a few tips and products for the driver who has lost (or never learned) the art of the roadside fix.


The Roadside Automatic Jack, left, and Michelin Smart Jumper Cables make roadside repairs easier.

Dead battery
You get into your car, turn the key and ... nothing. Maybe you left your headlights on, or maybe your battery is past its prime, but no matter -- your car is dead. Carrying jumper cables may save not only your skin, but a fellow motorist's as well.

With traditional cables, be mindful when attaching the positive and negative cable clamps or you may be left with a fried electrical system. For a foolproof method, Michelin offers Smart Jumper Cables ($40, buysmartcables.com), which automatically adjust polarity so that you can connect the clamps to either positive or negative connections.

Safety first

  • If your vehicle breaks down on the road, follow these guidelines before breaking out the emergency kit:

  • Pull off the road by exiting onto the far right shoulder on most roads. Don't try to push your vehicle to another location.

  • Alert other motorists by turning on your emergency flashers. Raise your vehicle's hood and tie a brightly colored scarf or other material to the antenna or door handle. If it's safe to walk along the edge of the roadway, place flares or warning triangles to direct oncoming traffic away from your vehicle.

  • If you are able to pull away from traffic, remain with your vehicle until help arrives.

Flat tire
The thud of a flat tire is a sound known all too well. A tire inflator such as Fix-a-Flat ($4, O'Reilly Auto Parts) can provide a quick solution. But if the tire is completely blown, it's time to put that spare tire to use.

The Roadside Automatic Jack ($80, etoolcart.com) makes the job much easier. Just position the jack beneath one of your vehicle's lift points and plug the electrical cord into a cigarette lighter. In seconds, the jack's motor will lift the car to get the tire off the ground.

Blown fuse
Radio out? Or maybe the interior lights or turn signals? A likely culprit is a blown fuse. Installing a new fuse is relatively simple, and this is the perfect opportunity to crack the spine on your owner's manual. It will tell you which fuses are compatible with your vehicle and how to change them.

Emergency kit
The reality of dead cellphone batteries means all drivers should have emergency kits in their vehicles. Get a pre-packaged kit (Disaster Stuff's Auto Roadside Emergency Kit is $30, disasterstuff.com) or put together your own, tailoring the items to your needs.

Good things to have in an emergency include a flashlight with extra batteries; bottled water and non-perishable food; jumper cables; a tire-pressure gauge; flares, warning triangles or reflectors; windshield-washer fluid; a fire extinguisher; a spare tire; a jack; a lug wrench; a screwdriver; pliers; duct tape; an adjustable wrench; a tire inflator; extra fuses; and a first-aid kit.