I’ve got one kid who drives and one who’s about to and I noticed something important about driver’s ed classes (and other kids’ parents, to be honest). They never teach when you shouldn’t drive your car.
Sometimes, it’s obvious. If smoke is billowing out from under your hood or you actually see flames, it’s time to pull over. But sometimes, it’s not so obvious. There’s steam coming out from under the hood. Should I pull over or can I make it home? My tire’s really low. Should I stop driving or will it be okay until I can get to a service station?
I feel like every kid who’s learning to drive should learn a few basic things in addition to the actual driving. Things like a fundamental understanding of how a car works, how to inspect your car before you drive it, how to check fluid levels, when you should not drive your car, and how to perform some basic maintenance on your own.
The first skill to learn is how to give your car a quick inspection every time you drive. Here are some things you should check for:
Peek under the car and see if there are any obvious leaks. A spot or two of oil may not be cause for major concern—just something you should get checked out soon. But if you spot any big leaks, you need to find out what they are before driving.
Check for low or damaged tires. Keep an air pressure gauge in your car to make this even easier. If you’re just a few pounds light, you can make it somewhere to top off. If you’re very low, you need to figure out what’s going on.
Check your headlights, brake lights, and turn signals. This is easier if you have somebody else with you, but you can still do it on your own. Working lights make your car much safer and, as a bonus, less likely to get pulled over.
Get to know the gauges and indicators on your dash so you can see if something’s off.
And if you’re heading out on a long trip, take the time to check your fluids and make sure your spare tire is in good shape and that your jack is where it should be.
If you’re already out on the road when something happens, you should know when you need to pull over right away. The short answer is when in doubt, stop the car. But, here are some specific reasons to pull over and make an assessment:
If you see smoke or flames or smell anything burning. This should be an obvious one, but you might be surprised. Sometimes, a little smoke or slight burning smell might be nothing to worry much about—maybe a little oil spilling out onto a hot exhaust pipe. But usually, smoke can mean serious damage to the car and a threat to your safety. Pull over and check it out.
If you see steam. Steam usually means that coolant is leaking from your system. A little bit of steam may just be a slow leak, in which case you could drive somewhere to get it checked out. But if it’s leaking a lot, you run the risk of overheating your engine and that’s damage can happen quickly and cost a lot in repairs. So, again, pull over and check it out. Just do it safely.
If the car suddenly handles differently. If you sense a sudden change in how your car handles, the problem could range from a blown tire to a loose wheel to a power steering fluid leak. No matter what the problem, you need to get safely to the side of the road and check it out. It also pays to learn how to handle driving emergencies like this ahead of time.
If your temperature or oil light comes on. Driving with no oil pressure or an overheating engine can cause serious (and expensive) damage to a car in just minutes. If you see these lights come on, or if you see your temperature gauge creep into the danger zone, don’t wait. Pull over and check it out.
If you lack visibility. This is another one that should be obvious, but for some reason people tend to just soldier on. If you can’t see, stop driving. Whether it’s a sudden rainstorm, deep fog, or a crack in your windshield that just got worse, pull over and wait it out or call for help.
If there are major distractions. If you drop something that you can’t let just sit on the floor for a while, your kids are causing more than their usual share of chaos, or a bee or bird flies into your window (it happens), pull over and get that stuff sorted out before you keep driving.