Getting the keys to a car is a great rite of passage for every American teenager. It divides their life into before and after, increases their mobility and sets the stage for their transition into adulthood. Plus, it makes them feel cool and grown up. Part of being grown up is not ignoring that squeaking sound or the oil light in the car they are now allowed to drive. Here are several car maintenance tips every teen driver should know.
The Dangers of Teen Driving
Nowhere are teens more dangerous than behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle hurling down the road at a mile a minute. No wonder insurance rates for teen drivers average 17% more than for adults.
Automobiles present dangers to teens too; namely, that they require a level of tender, loving care few teenagers know anything about, and will punish that neglect by ceasing to function properly. The fact that teens are more likely to be driving older cars also increases the possibility of breakdowns in the middle of the night on some godforsaken road, miles from help.
That’s why it is so very important to teach the young driver in your family the basics of automobile operation and maintenance. Car maintenance, particularly preventative maintenance, can save your child time and money, extend the life of the car, and teach them lessons for a lifetime.
Car Maintenance Tip #1: The Owner’s Manual
Before operating a car, a new driver should become familiar with the owner’s manual. It provides them with the maintenance schedule they should follow, the location of various items like the hood release and spare tire, indicates maintenance specs like tire pressure and motor oil type, and generally serves as an overall guide to the vehicle.
Once a teenager has perused the manual, they should commit to following the maintenance schedule, even though doing so can be inconvenient and require the expenditure of money. This schedule will let them know when oil changes, tune-ups, timing belt replacements and other maintenance should be done to keep the car running in optimal condition.
Car Maintenance Tip #2: The Oil Change
Motor oil is the single most critical fluid in the car, so keeping it clean and flowing is a critical part of the car maintenance schedule. The owner’s manual will identify how often oil needs to be changed – every 3,000 on many older models but up to every 10,000 on new models – and the weight of the oil that should be used.
Every teen should be taught to keep track of oil changes and know when the next one is due. Most oil change providers put a sticker on the windshield that indicates when 3,000 miles has elapsed since the last oil change.
Your teen should also know the signs of an oil leak – oil on the ground or blue smoke coming from the exhaust – and how to check the oil in their car. Popping the hood, finding the dipstick, wiping it on a rag and checking the level are easy steps any teenager can learn, and it could save them a lot of trouble while out on the road.
Car Maintenance Tip #3: Tire Pressure and Tread
Underinflated tires can rob a car of gas mileage and make it run mushy. Teenagers should know to check the tire pressure by removing the valve cap, checking it with a pressure gauge and filling it up, if necessary, at a service station. Proper inflation for the tire is listed on its sidewall.
It’s a good idea for a teen driver to know what constitutes good tire tread. They can easily learn the penny test that tells them whether to buy new tires. Teach them to insert the penny in the tread with Abraham Lincoln upside down. If his whole head is visible, time for new tires.
Car Maintenance Tip #4: Changing a Tire
A flat tire can ruin a driver’s day if they don’t know how to change it. Calling for help and getting it changed is time-consuming and expensive, but with a little knowledge, a teenager can tackle the job.
Make sure their car has a spare tire, jack and lug wrench, and that they know to park the car away from traffic on flat ground. Then teach them the following steps:
- Apply the parking brake.
- Remove the spare from the trunk, and the hub cap or wheel cover from the flat tire.
- Unscrew the lug nuts.
- Jack up the car carefully and remove the tire.
- Replace the flat tire with the spare.
- Hand-tighten the lug nuts.
- Lower the car to the ground, then tighten them with the wrench. (It is important to teach first-timers not to loosen or tighten nuts while the car is jacked up to avoid yanking the car off the jack.)
Car Maintenance Tip #5: Checking the Fluids
Oil levels are important, but oil isn’t the only necessary fluid in a car. Rookie drivers should learn how to check the coolant level, transmission fluid and even the windshield wiper fluid.
In the case of the coolant, safety is a key consideration, so make sure your teen driver understands that the car must cool before they open the radiator cap – with a rag in hand. The necessary fluid level is indicated by a line inside the radiator. Coolant today comes pre-mixed, so pouring in the correct amount is easy.
Car Maintenance Tip #6: The Air Filter
The great thing about checking the air filter is that it is easy to do and cheap to replace, even for a young driver. Because the filter keeps dirt out of the combustion process, it has an important job and should be replaced when dirty. Filters are relatively easy to find, generally at the top of the engine, and are usually secured with nothing more than a couple of clamps or screws. Most car care stores have a matching system for models and air filters, or the information can be found quickly online as well.
Car Maintenance Tip #7: Checking the Battery
The electric current that starts the car and keeps the radio running comes from the battery, so that ought to be important to a teenager. The car won’t go and they can’t listen to their tunes without the battery.
It’s not hard, even for a newbie driver, to make sure the battery posts are clean and the connections are secure. With the engine off, a visual inspection should be enough. If gook is fizzing around a connection, pouring cola and scraping it with a hard-bristled brush can cure the problem. (Yes, cola. It’s extremely acidic and the gunk on the posts is an alkaline buildup.)
Car Maintenance Tip #8: Checking Belts and Hoses
Whenever the hood is up, the belts and hoses should get a quick visual inspection to make sure there are no cracks, holes or wear. New drivers should be instructed to pay special attention to the serpentine belt – the longest and usually twisted belt connecting the alternator to the power steering pump. Pressing on a belt can help determine if it is wearing out: it should be firm and not move much when pressed.
Car Maintenance Tip #9: Flushing the Radiator
Keeping the cooling system functional is important, and periodic radiator flushing is part of that process. Even if the teenager in your life isn’t up to tackling major repairs or even changing the oil themselves, they can handle a radiator flush and save the family some money.
First, the tools of a radiator flush must be assembled. They are a funnel, a vessel for coolant to drain into, a supply of water, replacement coolant and a bottle of BlueDevil Radiator Flush. Flushing the radiator simply requires an hour or two and the removal of one radiator drainplug. The hardest part of this process is maintaining patience the third time through filling the radiator, running the engine, waiting for it to cool and draining it. Of course, teens should be reminded never to remove a radiator cap until the engine has cooled.
Car Maintenance Tip #10: Brakes
The ability to stop a car may be more important than the ability to start it. It is difficult to get injured or killed in a crash when the vehicle won’t start in the first place, but quite easy to do so if it won’t stop.
That’s why it is important to teach a teen driver what brakes should feel like and the signs that they need to be replaced. Older drivers can often tell when brakes feel spongy because they have years of experience with firm ones. A young driver lacks that basis of comparison. Brakes that don’t stop the car hard when applied firmly, or that go to the floor before engaging, likely need to be replaced.
Teaching a teenager these 10 tips will help keep them safe and comfortable in a well-performing vehicle, avoid expensive repairs and potentially add a year or two to their parents’ lives.