Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Drive It Like You Stole It!

Above: One of my 1997 BMW convertibles. Although it is worth only a few thousand dollars, it is in nearly like-new condition and will provide many more miles of good service, in style, before wearing out. Garaging it and taking care of it and not beating on it are the keys to keeping a car longer. This car is 13 years old.

I have commented before on bad driving habits and how that can prematurely wear your car out. Yet many people have horrible driving habits and don't really even know it.

How long a car lasts is a direct function of how you drive it.  And how you drive also affects how often you get in an accident, or get a ticket, which directly affects your insurance rates. So the cost of driving a car is a direct function of your driving habits.

Most of us learn our driving habits from our parents or our peers. My parents had horrible driving habits. They tailgated, they accelerated too quickly, they braked too late, they sped, you name it.  And when it came to car care, they were barely able to put gasoline in the car, much less wash and wax it. Not surprisingly, they tended to go through cars at a rapid clip.

How you drive affects how much it costs to drive. Here are some tips on cutting your car expenses simply by changing the way you drive:

1. Anticipate Stops: When driving, you should be looking as far down the road as possible, to anticipate what will happen next (will that car pull out of the side road? Will that light change to red?).  When you see a stop sign or a red light (or a "stale green" - a light about to change), take your foot off the accelerator and slow down gradually.

Many folks continue to accelerate all the way up to a stoplight, applying the brakes only a few feet from the stop line.  This wears on your car in a number of ways and costs money.  To begin with, you are wasting gas, adding kinetic energy to the car, only to convert it to heat with the brakes moments later.  You are not saving any time, either, as a red light is a red light, and the car that you passed on the way to the red light (me) will surely meet you there.

The life of your brake system can be severely shortened by driving this way.  By anticipating stops, you can increase brake life two, three, four, or more times.  And sudden intense braking generates intense heat that does damage to more than just brake pads - it can warp rotors and cause calipers to get hot and corrode.  Even suspension components such as control arm bushings and the like are worn by such sudden and severe pressure.

A special note to Hybrid Drivers:  Decelerating gently will allow your hybrid system to convert that kinetic energy back into electricity and recharge your batteries.   However, the system can only absorb so much energy at a time using "regenerative braking".  If you make sudden stops, the service brakes have to take up the slack, converting that kinetic energy into heat. If you drive a Prius this way, you are really missing the point of what the car is about.

2. Mashing the Accelerator: When the light turns green, many folks immediately smash down on the accelerator.  This is a bad idea for three reasons.

The first is fuel economy. Acceleration uses the most amount of fuel in any car, so rapidly accelerating often uses more fuel, particularly when you are going to just stop at the next light a block or two ahead.

Second, the acceleration from 0-5 mph puts the most stress on the driveline, as the car has to launch 4,000 lbs of metal from a dead standstill.   Drag racing your car will cause extra wear and tear on your transmission and driveline over time.   If you want to keep the car for a long time, be gentle with it.

Third, launching from a stoplight is more likely to get you into an accident.   People run red lights (or stale yellows) more than ever before (or run stop signs).  Before you hammer the throttle, take a second to look both ways to make sure some yahoo isn't speeding toward you.   It's called defensive driving and its a good idea to practice.

3. Tailgating: This is the worst habit in the world, as it wears on your brakes and your nerves, as you try to be hyper-alert while drafting the car ahead of you.   One moment's inattention and BAM! You are in an accident and at fault.

Trying to match speed with a car ahead, accelerating and braking constantly, also consumes a lot of gas.

It is not hard to spot a tailgater's car- the front end is chipped and pitted by rocks thrown up from cars ahead.  Tailgating literally destroys a paint job. Surprisingly, many folks will tailgate trucks, including salt trucks or even construction trucks spewing gravel and dirt.  Either pass them or fall back.

As you know, for any given speed, you should leave at least three seconds space between you and the car ahead.  Watch the car ahead pass a signpost and count "One one-thousand, Two, one-thousand, Three one-thousand."   If you pass the sign post before then, you are tailgating.

Note: When buying a used car, look at the nose for signs of rock chips and scratches.  A tailgater's car will look like it was blasted with a shotgun.  Generally speaking, such cars should be avoided, if there are other, more gently driven examples available for the same price.

4. Speeding: By this, I don't mean doing 5 mph over the limit.   To some extent, everyone speeds a bit. But the key word here is "a bit."  Trying to drive 80 mph by weaving in and out of 70 mph traffic is just annoying the snot out of everyone.

And as you try to accelerate and then have to brake suddenly, you'll wear on your brakes and waste a lot of gas.

And you won't get there any faster.  I learned this driving our motor home. We'd putt along at 65 mph or so and some yahoo would zip by at 80, only to jam on his brakes because he sees a car in the median and thinks its a cop.  After a few miles of this nervous driving, they have to pull over for a break, as they are emotionally exhausted.  Meanwhile, our motor home putts by at 65 and a half-hour later, the same yahoo zips by me again.  Repeat ad infinitium.

It is true what they say in defensive driving classes - you can't "make up time"on the road, and going a few mph faster won't save very much time.  You might save a few minutes, tops, even on a trip of several hours.  It just ain't worth it.  The time saved going 10 mph over the speed limit is negligible, compared to the money cost in gas, wear, and tickets.

Fuel consumption goes up exponentially with speed.  Doing 80 can use 40% more fuel than going 65, even though the change in speed is around 20%.

And then there are the tickets.   Get two or three and see your insurance go from $1000 a year to $4000 a year in a real hurry.

Driving a high performance car is fun, but save the spirited driving for special occasions - the right time and place.  Driving like a maniac all the time accomplishes little except to help impoverish you further.

5. Slamming Doors, etc. Many folks treat their cars like crap.  They windup and slam the doors like they are major league pitchers.  Not only does this wear on hinges, latches, etc., but also can cause rattles to form in interior door parts, work trim loose and even break window regulators and other parts.  Determine how much force is needed to close you car door and apply no more.   The good old American car door slam is not good for your car.

Similarly, many people, when sitting in a car, will crouch down to about 2 feet above the seat, and then let go, allowing gravity to do the rest. The result is a major impact to the lower seat cushion, which wears and compresses the seat cushion prematurely. Not only is this bad for the car, it is bad for your spine.  Sit down carefully in a car, and don't "rub" against the upholstery. Avoid riveted pocket jeans and other sharp implements which can tear even leather.

6. Scratching the Paint: Many folks treat the paint on their cars horribly - placing items on the hood or trunk lid, such as bags of groceries, and allowing them to slide off or dragging them across the car. Such actions cause minute scratches in the paint, which over time will make the car look awful and in turn motivate you to trade it in.

Similarly, door dings and the like can largely be avoided if you open and close doors carefully. Pushing against the door with your feet leaves marks on the inside and then flings the door open against its hinge stops (often weakening the hinge) or impacts the door into an adjacent car, light pole, or other obstruction.

7. Parking Outside: Parking an car outside destroys the exterior and interior. The paint will fade more quickly and be subject to acid rain, dirt and debris. The interior will bake in the sun and fade the dashboard and other interior parts. The headliner glue will soften and cause it to fall. Leaks - even minor ones, will allow water to enter and fester, causing a funky mildew smell.

Any car will last twice as long if it is regularly garaged. If you do not have a garage and cannot afford one, then there is little you can do, other than to buy an inexpensive car and live with the wear and tear. But many Americans have large 2 or 3 car garages full of boxes of junk, and they will park a $50,000 car out in the sun, wind, rain, and snow. Get your priorities straight and throw away the boxes of "stuff" (or sell them in a garage sale) and put that valuable car under cover.

8. Kids: Many parents will sigh and say "well the kids, they are so hard on the car!" and it is true, that children, if not trained, will open car doors with their feet, smashing the door into an adjacent car.  They will scratch and pick at interior bits and break off parts of the car. T hey will climb on a car with dirty shoes and put deep gouges in the paint.  All of this is true - if you let your kids do these things.  Get your children started early in learning to respect machinery.  We live in a technological world and rely on technology in our daily lives.  Disrespecting your car is not something that happens spontaneously - it only happens if you let it.

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These are just a few suggestions as to how to treat a car in a manner designed to make it last a good long time.  Most of my cars are over 10 years old, and people are shocked to discover that they are that old.  Many folks assume they are new or late model cars.

Treat your car like the delicate plastic consumer good that it is. Intentionally beating on your car and wondering why it looks like crap after two or three years is not very cost-effective.

How you treat a car has a direct effect on how long it will last and how long you will want to keep it. Once a car looks dirty, dinged, dented, scratched, and beat up, you'll be more inclined to sell or trade it the first time it needs even a minor repair. A good looking car, on the other hand, will seem more worthwhile to keep.