You see it all the time. A car coming toward you at night with only one headlight. Or a car into no taillights. Or one with the exhaust system scraping the road. Cars like these, and their drivers, are annoying and potentially dangerous.
But when was the last time you checked your headlights, taillights or exhaust system? Even if regular inspection is required in your state, how do you know the shape of these things in the meantime?
Here's what you want to check.
LIGHTS. Turn the headlights on. It helps to have a friend sitting in the driver's seat, so you're not hopping in and out of the car. But you can do it yourself -- you can probably use the exercise anyway.
Turn on the high beam; both lights should be working. Now low beam. Both should still work.
Check the parking lights, and each taillight. Have your friend put on the brakes. Both brake lights should light. Now have your friend shift into reverse. The backup lights should light.
Check the turn signals.
If any light doesn't work, have it fixed or replaced. In most cases, simply replacing the bulb will solve the problem.
You can even check the brake lights yourself: back up to a wall and see if you light it up when you put on the brakes. Failing that, ask a gas station attendant to watch your brake lights while you press the pedal.
FLUIDS. Your car, like your body, needs enough of the right kinds of fluids to work properly.
Engine oil level should be checked every time you fill up the gas tank. Transmission and power steering should be checked as recommended in your shop manual or owner's manual.
Check the fluid level in each battery cell every couple of weeks, unless your battery is the sealed type you don't add water to. Battery neglect can lead to shortened battery life. Batteries are expensive, and dead batteries are a nuisance.
In a battery, it's best to use distilled water, available in supermarkets, auto-parts stores and other places that sell auto supplies.
The water level in each battery cell (there are six cells, one for each fill hole) should be at the bottom of the split ring in the fill hole.
Remove the top from the brake master cylinder. Most either unscrew, are held on by a bolt, or are removed by removing a bail and then lifting the cover off. Brake fluid level should be within a quarter-inch of the top of the master cylinder. If the master cylinder has two compartments, fluid level should be within a quarter-inch of the top in each compartment. Use the type of brake fluid recommended by your owner's manual or shop manual.
Check the coolant level every couple of weeks. If you car has a coolant recovery container, then keep the coolant level in the container at the level indicated on the container.
If your car doesn't have a coolant recovery system, then keep the coolant level in the radiator so it's about an inch below the radiator filler neck. Never check coolant level in a radiator when the engine is hot.
And remember the windshield washer. It's annoying, driving on a dark rainy night, to find that the slush just deposited on your windshield won't come off because your windshield washer just ran out of fluid.
TIRES. Check the tread occasionally for uneven wear, excessive wear and foreign objects imbedded in the tread.
Check tire pressures, and keep the tires inflated at pressures recommended in the owner's manual. Tire pressures should be checked cold, or when the car hasn't been driven more than a mile at low speed. Hot tires can cause the tire pressure gauge to give a misleading reading.
BELTS AND HOSES. Occasionally check belts for wear and proper tension. Check hoses for brittleness, leaks, loose clamps. Replace hoses and belts every two years.
EXHAUST SYSTEM. Look under the car now and then just to make sure none of the clamps and hangers that hold the exhaust system up has broken. Replace any that have.
By giving your car periodic inspections, you not only make it safer to drive. You decrease the chances of being unpleasantly surprised by a police officer giving you a ticket for a burned-out headlight or unsafe exhaust system.