Q: Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1987 Toyota Supra that I love dearly. For the past year or so, every time I go to the post office, it won't restart. If I shift it back and forth between "neutral" and "park," it finally starts in one of those positions. I thought it was the battery because I used to get out and bang on the battery cables and that sometimes worked. I can't believe this car is smart enough to know when it's at the post office. My mechanic said that unless it would do it for him, all he could do was start replacing parts.

--Jan

RAY: Well, that's one way of going about it, Jan. Unfortunately, both of the suspect parts in this case are rather pricey.

TOM: I would suspect either the starter or the neutral safety switch. The neutral safety switch prevents you from starting the car unless the transmission is in either "park" or "neutral." Why? So you don't accidentally start the car in "drive" and plow into the "stamped mail" collection box.

RAY: And if the switch is on the fritz and working intermittently, it could be causing your problem.

TOM: Unfortunately, the neutral safety switch in this car is part of the backup-light control unit, and the part costs about 250 bucks. So I wouldn't just throw one in unless you have 300-plus bucks to fritter away (which we know you don't, otherwise, you wouldn't be driving an '87 Toyota).

RAY: So if you can't get it to fail for your mechanic, I'd ask him to lend you a test light and show you how to use it. It's pretty easy.

TOM: Then, next time you go to mail a letter and the car won't start, you hook up the test light to the starter solenoid wire. Then you ask Newman (or the nearest letter carrier) to turn the key for you. If the test light lights up and the car doesn't start, then you know the neutral safety switch is working, because power is getting past it and to the starter. If the light stays dark, then you know the neutral safety switch is not letting any power through and needs to be replaced.

RAY: Why does it only happen at the post office? I suspect it's related to the post office's distance from your house, and how long you drive the car before shutting it off and trying to restart it. That affects how hot things get, and that's why it happens at the post office and not first thing in the morning or after work, when the engine is cold.

TOM: Or your car may be like my dog and just have an innate dislike for letter carriers.

Dear Tom and Ray:

Is it better to apply the brakes and then let off alternately, or just apply steady pressure when slowing down or stopping? And which method causes less wear on the brakes?

--Bishop

RAY: Well, let's ignore the wear-and-tear issue for the moment. There are a couple of safety situations that call for "alternating on and off" the brakes. One is slick roads. If you don't have anti-lock brakes, pumping the brakes can help you stay in control of the car and keep from skidding while you stop.

TOM: The other situation where constant, steady pressure is not a good idea is when you're going down a long, steep hill. Then you want to use a low gear and minimize your dependence on the brakes. Excessive use of the brakes--whether constant or intermittent--could lead them to overheat, which could make the brake fluid boil and cause complete brake failure.

RAY: But to get back to your question about which method causes less wear on the brakes, the answer is: Nobody knows. And my guess is that the difference is so slight that it hardly matters.

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