Is Your Vehicle Mechanically Fit?

Scrap CarBeing able to go to our vehicle, put our key in the ignition and drive off to whatever destination suits us is a luxury that we seldom consider. I would dare say that for many of us the only time that we really consider our vehicle is when it fails us. Just for fun, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a professional driver and apply the mandatory daily pre-trip inspection to our personal vehicle.

Before we go, we must be certain that we can stop! The service brakes are the first item on our checklist. Open the hood and make sure that the brake fluid level in the master cylinder is above the minimum. Start your vehicle and apply firm pressure to the brake pedal for five seconds. The pedal should not move during the test. Make sure that the brake warning light on the dash lit briefly when you started the vehicle and is now off. Roll ahead and apply the brakes. Your vehicle must stop without delay, pulling to one side or abnormal pedal feel.

The brake test is not done yet. Our final check here is the parking brake. Apply the brake and note that the pedal should not depress to the floor or the pull to the end of it’s travel. Choose the lowest gear and try to move ahead. The parking brake must hold you back.

Steering is next. The hood is still up from our brake inspection, so we can visually check all of our steering components. Can’t see the tie rods or other connections? This may mean having to do a bit of crawling under the front of the vehicle. It’s not on the list, but it would not hurt to check the power steering fluid level.

It’s time to see and be seen so it’s time to do a circle check and inspect the lights and reflectors. High beam, low beam, brake, hazard, signal, tail, marker and licence plate lights must all be functional. Lenses must be the correct colour, undamaged and clean.

While we’re moving in circles, remember the tires and wheels as they need to be checked too. Tread depth and proper inflation pressure must be insured. Wheels must not be bent or damaged and all wheel  nuts must be present and properly tightened.

I suppose that we could have checked to make sure that the horn honked when we checked the brakes, but if we didn’t, do it now.

Being able to see properly in bad weather is important so let’s test the windshield wipers. Does the control work properly? Do the wipers move at the correct speeds? Is the rubber undamaged?

Looking out also includes looking back. For most of us, that means three properly adjusted rear view mirrors. One on the outside left, one in the middle and one on the outside right. They must be clean and free of cracks.

Are you carrying any cargo? What is locked in the trunk might not need any securement but pause to think about what you load into the passenger compartment. These items can become deadly missiles in a collision.

Whew, almost done! The last item is our emergency equipment. You may not choose to carry triangles, flares, a fire extinguisher or the like but I would suggest that checking the inflation of your spare tire would be a good thought instead.

If you didn’t notice anything else during all of the checking, you are probably ready to go. Complete your written pre-trip inspection report and carry on!

Oh, did I mention that when you park your vehicle for the day you need to do all of this again? While we are lucky to not have to do this by law, it is up to us to insure that our vehicle does meet basic mechanical fitness and that will require more than turning the key and heading out each day.


My former employer, WorkSafeBC, required that I perform several checks before using their vehicle each day.  Their list, which was not as extensive as yours, covered all o f the key safety features such as brakes, horn, lights, mirrors and visual walk-around.  Each vehicle included a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, flashlight (with orange cone), triangle and a high viz-safety vest.  Each officer was required to submit a weekly report containing the daily checklist with each item checked off.

This made sense to me so I provided my personal vehicle, and that of my then-wife, with emergency equipment and performed daily safety checks on my vehicle.  My then-wife was not keen about doing safety checks on her vehicle, so I did them for her at least once a week.  The spare tire on my van is located under my van, so I ask that the condition and air pressure of this tire be checked every time my van is on the hoist for an oil change.  I'm too old now to be crawling around under my van.

One morning I noticed that my employer's vehicle, a GMC van, had significantly less fuel that I expected.  I drove to the local gas station and began fueling up when I began to smell gasoline and then noticed gasoline on the concrete floor surface.  I turned off the flow of gasoline and stepped back about 20 feet.  To my surprise, the gasoline seemed to be coming from a leak under the the GMC van.  Knowing that gasoline is highly flammable, I asked other motorists to keep away and to avoid smoking.  The station attendent provided a container of absorbant (kitty litter) that we scattered on the concrete surface.  I waited for about 30 minutes, to allow the gasoline to evaporate, before returning to the GMC van.  I drove to a nearby garage where the mechanic inspected my gas tank.  He told me there was a knife cut in the hose between the metal intake and the metal gas tank.  He said the cut was likely made by someone who then inserted a tube and siphoned off gasoline from the gas tank.  When I was fueling up, some of the gasoline escaped through the cut in the hose and went onto the ground.  The mechanic said this was not uncommon for trucks and vans with such a hose connected to the gas tank.  After that incident I made a point of checking for any indication that someone had cut the fuel intake hose on the GMC van.

For professional drivers in BC, Pre-Trip inspections are mandatory. Being as my vehicle is used both for Class 4 training and Passenger Transportation, it gets checked - by both myself, and my students - so often it would make your head spin; never mind thorough CVSE inspections every six months.

Doesn't completely eliminate problems - tires are always susceptible to damage or defect, so I was grateful that the onboard TSP system was there to warn me when the right rear picked up a nail a few months back, particularly as I was carrying a load of passengers and their gear.

And mandatory Pre-Trips for buses and trucks make nothing but sense; they accumulate a lot of kilometers while being driven by a number of drivers, often as not; so waiting for 'someone else' to discover a problem and fix it during a CVSE check isn't any excuse.


But for the average driver, it's all too easy to ignore this stuff. Heck, oftentimes somebody who is contemplating the purchase of a used car won't take the time (usually due to ignorance on their part) to give the vehicle a proper once-over; checking brake discs/drums for wear, along with pads and linings may be a bit much without a hoist or jack and some other tools, but ensuring that the parking brake is functioning properly is easy enough; set it, then try to drive away. If you get to drive away, something is wrong!

Likewise, ensuring that the service brakes work properly is easy enough - start driving forwards, then hit the pedal, hard! What about the steering? Hold the wheel between thumb and forefinger, and gently move it in each direction; if there's more than a millimetre or two before you encounter soft resistance (I'm assuming power steering here, either electric or hydraulic) then the vehicle is defective.

Fluids? It's normal for brake fluid level to reduce, incrementally, over time, as the pads wear. It ain't normal to have to top it up though! Coolant shouldn't disappear, check the overflow reservoir. Look under the vehicle - if there are signs of leaks, it will only get worse; your garage/carport floor or your driveway shouldn't ever have anything but the moisture from your air conditioning condensor visible (it will evaporate) or you have a problem.

Lights are dead easy to check, parking lights, tail lights (don't forget the license plate lights), high beams and low beams, brake lights (helps to have a window or friend behind the car, same with reversing lights - and you don't need to have the motor running so long as the ignition is on), turn signals.

Tires will tell you a story, if you know how to read them. Tread depth, and tread wear, are easy to measure and check - any un-even wear across the tire surface indicates a problem. 'Experts' will tell you that your vehicle should be aligned every 1 or 2 years. Which is crap - I haven't had any vehicle of mine (or fleet vehicles that I've been responsible for maintaining) aligned unless they got curbed hard, or encountered savage potholes or other similar issues.

Checking, and maintaining, tire pressure is the biggest single issue that passenger vehicle owners ignore, to their peril. Particularly as it changes all the time due to ambient temperature and normal air loss.

Every time you walk up to your car to drive it away, you should walk around it and glance at the tires in case one of them has developed a leak or been damaged; at the same time, look at where the front wheels are pointed, so you won't get a surprise when you start it in motion. Also, because you just walked around your vehicle, you've ensured that you know what's in the blind area in the immediate area of travel. Fundamental, this. Every time.

Don't wait until you discover a problem - if your wipers don't clean the windshield properly, and the washers don't help, it's because you didn't make any attempt to maintain them properly. Winter is coming, eh?

It isn't that hard to make sure your vehicle is mechanically functional. Just takes a little effort, from time to time.

By the way, what's the pressure in your stupid little spare, buried in the trunk? Do you seriously think that your dealer checked that, last time you took the car in for service?