Make Life With A Car Easier With A Few Simple Habits
Happiness with cars is often paid for with the little things we can do while using them.
I’ve been driving a car since I was 17. I got my learners-permit when I was 15. I got my license when I was 16. I bought my first car when I was 17, and since then, I’ve never been without a car. I’ve been driving almost every day now for 37 years and I’ve learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share with you. Here are some simple habits that will make your life with a car a little bit easier.
Don’t rev the engine when you start the car
I’ve seen how some other people start their cars and I always cringe when I see them revving the engine just as they turn the key. The problem with revving the engine on startup is that when an engine has been idle for some time, like overnight, most of the oil has dripped back down into the oil pan. That means that piston rings, crankshaft bearings, camshafts, valve lifters, and valve guides have very little oil in them, and that means wear and tear on an engine.
When I start my car, I don’t even have my foot on the gas pedal. I let the engine start on its own when I turn the key. I trust that the engineers have designed the car to just start without my coaxing. The first 30 seconds are critical. I don’t even rev the engine in park, that’s a waste of gas. I just start the car with my foot off of the gas pedal, let the car idle and warm up for 30–60 seconds and then I put the car in reverse to back out. I don’t put the car in gear during that warmup time because if I release the brake, that engages the clutch in an automatic transmission and places load on the engine.
Once the oil is circulating and the engine has warmed up, I am on my way. By just turning the key without my foot on the gas, the engine turns over and finds an idle speed that’s right for warming up. The engineers have baked some intelligence into the car so that it can sense temperature, idle time and inclination, and the engine will adjust accordingly. In a nutshell, I’m gentle with my cars so that can I get the maximum life out of them.
Change the oil
Most modern cars have a sensor in the engine, usually in the oil pan, that tests the oil for the chemical breakdown of the oil. It’s a chemical sensor that checks to see how much life is left in the oil before it will need changing. Oil in the car is like the blood in your body. Every moving part in the engine needs lubrication. If the oil is not changed regularly, the oil breaks down and then metal to metal friction occurs, grinding the parts to bits, and will eventually bring the car to a halt.
When that sensor detects that there is little remaining life in the oil, usually 15% life, it’s time to take it in for service. I just take it to the dealer when I need service. I’ve done the mom and pop shops and have seen a few disasters, so I think that dealers have gotten a bad rap in the past.
Taking the car into the dealer means I have some accountability. I can go to corporate and get some attention if need be. But my dealer has been treating me very well, so I take it there. They know my car well and have a very thorough historical record of the service on the car.
And they won’t change the oil until it hits 15% of life or less. Just this one thing, changing the oil when needed, will give you 200,000 miles or more out of a car without major repairs.
Static electricity around the car
For much of my early life with cars, I’ve had to deal with static electricity, that is, getting “zapped” on my fingers when I exit the car. This is actually critically important when you get gas for the car. Sparks from static electricity can ignite gasoline, even from vapors, so you want to be sure that you’ve discharged static electricity before you touch the handle of the pump nozzle.
It was a painful and frustrating problem for me for many years. I just hated every winter with dry, cold air, making static shock all the more likely. But then one day, I started to think about it. When I get out of the car, my pants rubbed against the fabric on the seat and that generates the charge. So I got the idea to always have a finger touching a metal surface on the car as I got out. As an informed adult, I always make sure that my hand is on metal until my feet are on the ground and my butt is no longer touching the seat. I will even keep a hand on the door as I get out to remove any chance for a shock.
By changing the way I get out of the car, just making sure that I’m discharging myself on the way out, I can avoid the shock, so long as my exit is clean. I know that if I neglect to touch some metal as I get out, a shock awaits me there, in the cold and dry winter air of Utah.
The drippy nozzle at the gas station
You’ve probably seen it. To fuel your car, you insert the gas hose nozzle into the fuel tank, pull the trigger and lock it. While your car is fueling, you watch the numbers roll up until you hear the click of the nozzle releasing the trigger lock when your fuel tank is full. Then you immediately pull the nozzle out of the tank, only to have a few drops of gasoline fall to the ground.
This is a waste of gas to be sure, but more than that, those few drops will add to the pollution in the air. That unburned gasoline on the ground will evaporate very quickly into the air, contributing to that ugly pink-brown haze on the horizon.
There is a simple solution: wait 10 seconds before removing the nozzle from the tank after fueling. There are a few good reasons for not being in a rush to pull out. First, you want to give the remaining liquid time to drain into the gas tank. That’s money for you. Second, there is a slight suction in the gas pump hose that pulls gasoline vapor back into the pump. Inside the pump, that vapor can condense back into liquid instead of floating out to the sky. That also saves you money.
So the next time you fill up, just wait 10 seconds — count to ten, then pull the nozzle out. Your lungs and your wallet will thank you. Especially if you multiply that simple action by 100 million other people doing the same thing.
Feather the pedal
In most driving situations, there is little reason to put the pedal to the metal or to even go halfway to the floor with the accelerator pedal. Every rev means you’re burning more gas, and if you’re just driving on surface streets, there is zero reason to drive aggressively. Just know that wherever you are going, you will get there. Besides, most of us would like to see next Christmas.
When I’m putting around a parking lot trolling for a parking space, I’m very gentle with the pedal. The reasons for this are sometimes obvious, sometimes not so much. For reasons of safety, there is no need to be racing around a parking lot. When I’m in a parking lot, I feather the pedal. I don’t blip the gas pedal for any reason and often, I let the car “creep” along with my foot off the gas until I’m clear of parking and pedestrian traffic.
Even while driving in residential neighborhoods, I feather the pedal because the car is in low gear. Low gear means more revs per unit of distance traveled, more revs mean more gas. So when I’m on surface streets, I like to be light and smooth on the pedal. I kind of think of Jackie Stewart, one of the greatest formula racers of all time. In an interview, he was asked how he won so many races. He said, “I’m smooth”, which I took to mean that he’s very conscientious about using the gas, clutch, and brakes while driving.
When I was a young man, I once drove my sister to an auto shop to assist her with getting her car repaired. I can recall seeing how she was bobbing and weaving with the car. So I resolved to drive like a limo driver. I try to keep it smooth so that I’m not wetting the pants of my passengers, too. I want them to know that I recognize that when they’re in the car, I’m responsible for their lives. That’s what I think about when I’m driving.
Plan your trips
Know where you’re going and the route you will take before you get in the car. Don’t just get directions on your phone and drive blind to your route. Google Maps is pretty smart and it can get you where you want to go, but if you don’t know your route ahead of time, improvisation can be difficult.
When driving, read the traffic and plan your turns far ahead of time. When I’m on the freeway, I’m looking ahead at least a half-mile for immediate traffic. At 75 miles per hour, the exits can go by fast, so I get into the lane I need to exit a mile or two before I get to the exit. Ever seen someone glide over 3 lanes over the span of a quarter mile just to get to the exit while leaving a trail of brake lights behind him? That wasn’t me.
Even on surface streets, I’m planning which lane I will be in and when. Driving is terribly boring, so to pass the time, I read the traffic. I look at the cars ahead of me to see what they’re doing, where they might go. I try to predict when people might change lanes. I make my plans around the other drivers when I’m driving. I read the traffic to plan my route and to improve my personal safety, too.
Life is short, leave early
Most car accidents happen when people are in a rush to get where they want to go. They didn’t plan their exit from their point of origin or some other contingency came up and now they’re late. And now they’re in a rush. I’ve seen them, speeding, cutting in and out of lanes, acting like they have the most important appointment in the world, and they’re late.
I like to be early. I like to be early more than I like to be just prompt. When I have an appointment or a time constraint, I plan my trips so that I leave early. If I arrive early, it’s no big deal, it’s not wasted time. I put that extra time to good use by acclimating myself to the environment. I use that time to get a good parking spot, or if I’m going to the movies or a meeting, I get a good seat so that I can see and hear things to my satisfaction.
If I leave early, I use less gas, I can pay more attention to what is going on around me when I’m driving. I can enjoy the music playing in my car. I can take my time getting there. And I can adjust for contingencies like accidents or road construction.
If I’m in a hurry, I’m far more likely to miss important details like red lights, oncoming traffic, even pedestrians. Ever notice how there is a spike in accidents in the spring, just after we move our clocks forward one hour? That’s a result of people not planning to wake up early, not planning to leave early, and being in a rush to get to work. On Monday after we move our clocks forward, I’m already packed the night before, I’ve got a plan to leave an hour early just in case there is an accident en route, and I can just take my time. I’m calm and relaxed on the road while many other people on the road with me might be running late.
Being prompt is nice, but being early brings me peace. So I err on the side of being early.
An assumption that could save your life
When I’m on the road, I assume that nobody sees me, nobody knows I’m here. This is something I learned from a guy who rides a motorcycle. That’s a really great piece of advice, and I took it to heart.
When I’m driving, I give everyone a large berth based on the assumption that they can’t see me and they have no idea that I’m on the road, next to them. I’ve seen the public service ads on the billboards about texting. I’ve seen the studies that say that people who text while driving are a bigger danger than drunk drivers. They can’t see me.
I also see women putting makeup on their faces in traffic. I see men lollygagging on their phones while driving with one hand on the wheel. And I see people running late for work. If I see someone in a bigger hurry than me, I let them pass. Let them catch the ticket. Besides, they can’t see me.
I also do this for trucks. I give them the space they need to get around me. I let them go ahead of me. I let them merge on the freeway before me. And I steer clear of them because they can’t see me, especially on the right side of their vehicle. I make sure that I’m not in any place where they can’t see me, and go on my merry way.
Acting like no one can see you on the road, and that no one knows you’re there means that you’re responsible for your own safety. You’re responsible for watching everyone else near you. You’re responsible for avoiding accidents. It may seem like a burden, but its actually quite liberating because when I have that attitude, I don’t have any expectations that other people will change for me. I will do the changing, they can do what they like. I will stay out of their way so that I can go my own way, get to my destination early, and relax.
When we use a car, we’re enclosed in 1.5 tons of steel. That weight has momentum, inertia, and it can do a lot of damage or a lot of good. What we get out of our cars depends on the choices we make.