Friday, November 9, 2012

The Sad, Untimely Death of Your Car

You've probably heard this adage: "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat out." Humbly, I would like to present another adage in the same vein: "If you can't afford maintenance, you can't afford a car." I possess a modicum of knowledge about cars. I have done work ranging from oil changes to transmission swaps on others' cars. I've seen a number of cars in various states of upkeep, but the vast majority of cars I've worked on for friends have left me shaking my head and thinking some variation of the above.

I intend to lecture you, reader, so feel free to leave off here if you're unwilling to listen.

Maintaining a car is optional in the same way that bathing is optional. You can skip it or put it off as long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences. If you don't bathe, you'll smell, have fewer friends, and probably get ill. If you skip or delay auto maintenance, you'll spend more on repairs, go through more cars, and maybe injure or kill yourself (and others) in an avoidable crash.

Let's talk about the costs first. If you keep your tires at the proper pressure, they'll last drastically longer than underfilled ones. (Like they're designed to) If you do oil changes with the proper oil at the correct interval, your engine will probably outlast your car- at least, if you live somewhere with salted roads. If you change your air filter at the proper interval, you'll enjoy the fuel economy your car ought to have. If you have the major manufacturer-recommended maintenance done when it's due, your car will likely last much longer, and you'll have significantly higher resale value to boot.

If you ignore these things, you'll have a car that burns more gas than it should, is less reliable, will die sooner, and could involve you, your loved ones, or someone elses' loved ones in a fatal accident.

Do you think I'm joking or exaggerating? Overworn or underpressurized tires, worn shocks, squealing brakes, and ignored dash warning lights are the kind of problems that make your car stop more slowly and fail to swerve like you want when another driver, deer, or child is in your path. Do you really think your car is going to perform like it should in an emergency driving situation when you've been treating it the way you have?

I did an oil change for a friend recently. The oil hadn't been changed since the car was bought months ago, and instead of the five quarts the automotive engineers mandated be in the engine, less than three drained out. The tires on the truck were visibly- dangerously- low, and the air filter had been changed recently, but only because I suggested it when I was ordering some parts online last month. The one that came out then looked like the inside of your vacuum cleaner bag. This is typical of what I see on friends' cars. This vehicle will inevitably die a early death, consuming plenty of the owner's dollars before it does, unless it takes someone's well-being or life first.

What about consequences that go deeper than your wallet or your health? I am a Christian. I know myself to be a steward charged to take care of and effectively use God's things that are on loan to me. This includes my time, my money, my health, my possessions- including my car. Before any Christian buys a car, they should assess whether they are ready to be a diligent and faithful steward of God's car. It's not a lofty ideal, it's a practical thing you do every day. You bathe the body you're the steward of every day, right? (...right?) If your car had arrived on your doorstep with a note from God saying "You may borrow my car, just take care of it and use it well." Would you lazily forget when the oil change is due on God's car? Would you fail to put air in the tires until they were visibly deformed? Would you drive God's kids in the car with shocks that won't be changed they're clunking?

I didn't think so. Whose car do you drive?

Owning a car is responsibility. It's not (just) a rite of passage, a necessity, or a convenience. You cannot and may not evade this responsibility by virtue of your lack of skills, brokeness, or busyness. Learning how to own a car isn't hard. Crack open your owner's manual and follow the maintenance schedule. If it's asking you to do things you don't know how to do, get on YouTube, CarBibles, or ask a friend. If that not your style, you'll garner no judgement from me, just crack open your wallet and have a professional do it. On time.

I'm considering advising my friends to buy electric cars. Sure, you can only go 60-90 miles on a charge, but all of the maintenance is so much less. The first oil change comes after 240 months in a i-MiEV. 20 years. Yes, you must still worry about tires, shocks, and brakes, but it's kind of like a Fisher-Price My First Car in the maintenance respect. Judging by the maintenance I typically see, that's what a lot of people need.

Although this is a topic for another time, your responsibility to drive your car well is arguably greater than your responsibility to maintain it. Learn how to drive your car properly, and don't assume that you know how to drive properly because you took the test 3 or 30 years ago and haven't killed anyone since then. In Finland, new drivers must have 15 hours of in-car training, 20 theory driving lessons, additional time driving on a slippery driving course, pass a theory exam and a 30-minute driving test in the city. Finlanders are three times less likely to be injured in an auto wreck than Americans*.

I'm not going to tell you how to maintain your car here, nor how to drive it. I'm just going to say that if you're not, you're the person who doesn't tip their server and hasn't showered lately. The difference is that you're not just hurting the waiter and smelling up the room, you're hurting yourself and endangering everyone you share the road with.

Before you turn the key next time, assess whether you've fulfilled the responsibilities of a car owner.

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