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Beware pitfalls of the summer road

Ah, summer. Time for the open road. The open, scalding hot, asphalt-melting, tire-puncturing, engine-overheating, totally congested road.
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Ah, summer. Time for the open road. The open, scalding hot, asphalt-melting, tire-puncturing, engine-overheating, totally congested road.

AAA predicts 29.4 million Americans will hit the road this Memorial Day weekend, equalling last year’s numbers, and the group’s “travel barometer” keeps showing steady increases in hotel reservations and car rentals, perhaps boosted by projections for dropping gas prices through the summer months. For the entire season, the Travel Industry Association sees more than eight in 10 Americans taking a trip, with record numbers driving to get there.

With more vehicles on the road comes more breakdowns: AAA also expects 7.4 million calls this summer for roadside help. Given those odds, maybe it’s worth doing more than filling the tank before you hit the interstate.

Regular trips to the mechanic are always sensible, and you should have basic components — brakes, transmission — in good shape anyway. But summer temperatures bring a whole new challenge, especially as local drivers, vacationers and road crews compete for the same strip of pavement. Many auto shops are running summer deals, which should be extra incentive.

“Anything that happens on the road is probably going to be expensive,” says John Nielsen, director of AAA’s auto repair network, “and it’s certainly going to be an inconvenience.”

Not convinced? Here’s a few things that could go wrong:

You know what the little RPM numbers on the tachometer stand for, right? That’s thousands of revolutions per minute on the crankshaft, which is demanding even on a well-built engine. High-viscosity oil is good, but if oil isn’t lubricating engine parts properly, the engine’s valve train can malfunction or the piston rings can blow and ruin an entire cylinder.

But oil isn’t just about keeping the engine lubricated; circulating oil also serves as a key cooling element, distributing heat across the engine block and moving it away from the pistons.

If oil gets gummed up during a summer drive, it can leave excess heat in the combustion chamber without an exit route. “On today’s cars, we use aluminum cylinder heads, and you get them hot, they warp,” Nielsen says. “Replacing them costs thousands.”

How to prepare: Even if you don’t believe in a regular change every 3,000 miles, do it before you head on vacation. No matter what, regularly check the oil level yourself — on level ground, and if the engine’s still hot allow several minutes for oil to settle and parts to cool. Know your oil type and keep a couple of quarts in the trunk.

Coolant and fluids
Engine cooling systems, which again distribute the heat away from the combustion chambers and remove it from the engine, usually rely on a mix of water and coolant — the coolant because it raises the system’s overall liquid boiling point (and lowers its freezing point in the winter).

“What you’re preventing is poor heat transfer. ... You’ve got a very hot engine. It’s even hotter in the summertime,” says Frances Lockwood, Valvoline’s senior vice president of technology. “You’ve got quite a bit of waste heat to get rid of.”

Modern engines have enough pressure valves and thermostats to monitor temperature, but if the boiling point falls too low or the liquid temperature can’t be properly regulated, the cooling system can corrode or fail. Both oil and the coolant systems circulate through the engine, but they’re meant to be kept separate. Exhausted coolant can lead to build-up of solid deposits and corroded pits in the system.

At best, it might overheat the engine and stop you in your tracks. At worst? Pistons welded to the cylinder, engine fires and the very likely probability you’re going to have to replace most of your engine.

Other fluids — brake and transmission — may not be as susceptible to the high temperatures, but can obviously still cause damage to your car. Transmissions, especially, can be easily overheated — and expensive to fix.

How to prepare: Check your coolant level, or have it done as part of your regular maintenance. Car makers usually specify in owner manuals when coolant systems need to be flushed and refilled, though it’s often every 50,000 miles or so.

You can top off your coolant yourself, and it’s not a bad idea to keep extra coolant in the trunk. But make sure you have a tester to check the mix, and don’t just turn your garden hose on the radiator. Says Lockwood: “I find even people I know well, chemists and whatnot, just topping off with plain water.”

Check other fluid levels however your car’s manual specifies. Regular maintenance, like an oil change, should include checks of all the key fluids.

Yes, you should rotate them — and if you’re not using all-season radials, get those winter tires off. But heat can wreak havoc on tires, especially because most owners’ repair lists place them somewhere below electric seat heaters. “It is the least respected, but it is the single most important component on a car,” says Mac Demere, a former race driver now a test driver for Michelin North America. “You’ve got four little hand-size patches of rubber attaching you to the road.”

The real danger, Demere says, is underinflation. All tires leak over time, but infrequent pressure checks and inaccurate gauges leave many cars with mushy tires. That softness ends up flexing the tire beyond its intended limits, which heats it up and weakens the structure. Add summer heat radiating up from the road, and the combination can stress tire walls and reduce tread effectiveness by up to half — which really hits home if you encounter a summer rainstorm and start hydroplaning.

The safest bet is to make sure all your tires are in good shape, have proper tread depth and are of the same model. That’s a rarity: During a recent set of checks at a North Carolina rest stop, Demere and his team found even BMW and Lexus drivers with cheap, mismatched tires.

Many folks don’t want to spring for four new tires, but the least a driver should do is match either the front or the rear to make sure alignment isn’t affected. Also, Demere says, new tires should always go on the back to ensure your rear tires don’t lose their grip, which can be deadly if the car loses traction and spins: “The tail goes out and you will be backwards before you can get an expletive out.”

How to prepare: Check your treads. Look for any debris in the tire surface. Know the proper inflation levels for your car. Use your own tire gauge to check them.

Breakdowns -- and repairs
If all your preparations — you didn’t forget anything, did you? — were for naught, stay by your car and make sure you have a cell phone to call AAA or the local police. Jack Grant, who represents state and provincial police for the International Association of Police Chiefs, also suggests you try and stay on larger roads and keep track of your exact location with mile markers so you can tell someone where you are. That’s especially important as more officers have to split road duty with a growing list of responsibilities such as homeland security.

If you see someone broken down, rather than stop to help, your better bet may be to call ahead and let local authorities know. “There are safety concerns,” Grant says. “If you have too many people stopped and walking around, and they’re not cognizant of traffic, it’s easy for people to get hurt.”

As though you needed more incentive: Even if you can get towed, it usually will be to the first place down the road — and could be a trip to maintenance purgatory.

“When I break down, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Glenn Mason of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, “I have to go to the first place I get towed to.”

Even if your role model isn’t Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (“What does your sheriff think of your business practices?” he asks one cash-hungry mechanic, who promptly flips out his sheriff’s badge), a mid-vacation repair is a gamble with your car and your wallet.

You might be able to check with AAA to see if a facility is on their approved list. Otherwise, look around the shop’s office for a state license and a list of customers’ rights. Many states require both to be clearly posted. An approval seal from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) may also ease concerns.

Also keep in mind you’ll be working around the mechanic’s schedule. Many repair shops aren’t open on weekends, and those that are may already have a lot full of work.

“They’re probably not waiting for someone to come in,” Nielsen says, “so you may spend a couple extra days in Des Moines.”

How to prepare (in case all our subtle hints haven’t worked): Get thee to the mechanic before you leave, silly.