If you’re one of the 84% of car owners whose vehicles need service right now, you’re putting yourself, your family, and everyone on the road at risk every time you get behind the wheel. The worst part is that you probably don’t even know that you’re in danger.

April is spring’s National Car Care Month, one of two months (the other is October) dedicated to promoting seasonal vehicle maintenance. During inspections at two key points last year, the Car Care Council found that an overwhelming 84% of cars were in need of service – and less safe than they could have been.

Your Car Care Checklist

If you own a vehicle or drive someone else’s vehicle regularly, you need to know that the car is safe to drive. Here are the most important things you must check to make sure your car is well-maintained, according to the Car Care Council:

  1. Engine fluids
  2. Hoses and belts
  3. Battery
  4. Brakes
  5. Exhaust system
  6. Heating and cooling systems
  7. Steering and suspension
  8. Tires
  9. Wipers
  10. Lighting

If you’re not comfortable checking these items yourself, get a trusted mechanic to do it, or look for a Car Care Month event in your area that offers free inspections. 

Caring for Your Car Makes You Safer

Even seemingly small problems can have serious consequences on the road. After all, when you – and all of the drivers around you – are operating complex machinery that weighs literally tons of pounds, sometimes cruising at speeds of 65 miles per hour or more, any breakdown that causes a loss of control can lead to a disastrous crash.

According to the results of inspections completed by the Car Care Council, here are some of the most common vehicle maintenance offenses that owners commit.

Windshield Cleaning and Clearing

About 27% of cars needed washer fluid, and 16% had windshield wipers in bad shape.

Because neither issue is hard to fix, these might seem like minor problems – but if an unexpected condition suddenly reduced your visibility to near-zero behind the wheel, that lack of washer fluid or functioning wipers could prevent you from seeing a hazard in time to stop.

Engine Oil

One quarter of all cars had problems with low or dirty engine oil – which means the fluid flowing through their engines, responsible for keeping everything in working order, is inadequate.

Coolant

About 17% of cars had coolant issues. Some cars simply didn’t have enough of the chemical. In others, the coolant was dirty and needed to be changed. Still others had more serious problems, with the coolant leaking out of the vehicle.

In most cases, fixing this problem is as simple as adding the right amount of coolant – but failing to fix it could cause your engine to overheat.

Engine Fluids

It doesn’t take much technical knowledge to work out what power steering, brake, and transmission fluids do or why they’re important. However, 13% of vehicles didn’t have enough of these essential chemicals to keep their cars running safely. Get too low on any one of these engine fluids, and you could lose control of your vehicle.

The check engine light should be an obvious clue that a car needs service, but 13% of cars still had this indicator on when inspected. Photo Credit: Wikiuser100000Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).

Belts, Hoses, and Filters

About 17% of cars needed at least one new belt. Eight percent needed a new hose. Air filters needed replacement in 18% of vehicles.

Battery

Is your battery in good working order? Great! However, just checking the charge doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. About 145 of cars had problems with the battery clamps, cables, and terminals, and another 9% “were not properly held down.”

Lights

More than one in 10 cars had at least one headlight, brake light, license plate light, or other bulb out. It might seem like no big deal, but even one absent light could make it harder for you to see what’s on the road – or harder for other drivers to see you.

Tires

When was the last time you checked your tire pressure? What about your tread? The tires are what connect your vehicle to the roadway and control its movements. Improperly inflated tires, which appeared on 10% of vehicles, could put you at risk for a tire blow-out, decreased traction, tire failure, and decreased control over stopping and steering your car. Another 14% of cars needed tires replaced, not just refilled with air, because the tread was so worn.

Vehicle Maintenance Matters

Safety is the most important reason for maintaining your car, but it’s not the only one.

The Value of Your Time

Do you rely on your car to get your family to work, to school, to doctor’s offices and grocery stores, to sports practices and recreational activities, to the homes of friends and family members? Most car owners do – otherwise, why have the expense and responsibility of having a car in the first place?

If you don’t maintain your vehicle, the defects will make your car’s performance unreliable. It might not happen today, or tomorrow, or next week, but after a long enough spell of neglect, don’t be surprised if your car stops working the way you want it to and leaves you stranded. We all know what that means: you’re late for work, you miss a family dinner or Little League practice, and you can’t get to essential errands like appointments and shopping for basic necessities.

Your time is valuable. If you choose not to maintain your vehicle promptly, you’re gambling with that time – and you have no way of knowing when and where you’ll have to pay that debt. Sure, it could be a slight, relatively harmless delay during leisurely day out, but it could also be an hours-long crisis on the way to the airport that makes you miss an expensive, nonrefundable flight.

So, what kind of risk are you willing to take with your time?

The Financial Cost of Missed Maintenance

No one likes to shell out the money for car maintenance, but not investing in regular care for your car could cost you a lot more in the long run.

“Neglected vehicle care almost always means much higher costs down the line in the form of more extensive repairs or lost resale value,” according to the Car Care Council’s Executive Director, Rich White.

Let’s break that down a little. One of the most basic types of maintenance your car needs is a regular oil change.

Oil changes typically cost $39.99 or less at a mechanic’s shop, according to ABC News, or you could do it yourself if you want to.

When your car is performing fine, it might feel like you’re throwing away the cost of the oil change. You don’t actually see any benefit from it.

Skip enough of these relatively low-cost services, though, and your car’s engine will suffer above-average wear and tear. It may take a while – “many thousands of miles,” according to HowStuffWorks – to reach the point of neglect where your car suffers catastrophic engine failure, but that’s the ultimate outcome if you ignore oil changes for long enough.

Not only is replacing the engine far more expensive than the cost of the oil changes you missed, but if you decide that the now damaged vehicle is too expensive to fix, you won’t be able to sell it or trade it in for much. The resale value is shot, because what good is any car without a working engine?

Avoid Accidents with a Well-Maintained Car

Being a responsible vehicle owner is essential for safety on the road, not to mention long-term cost-savings and efficient use of your time. You’ve got your life, the lives of your passengers, and the lives of unsuspecting fellow drivers in your hands. Any defect in your vehicle that reduces the amount of control you have behind the wheel is a serious risk. Use Car Care Month as a reminder to get your car serviced now – before a rundown part or lack of regular maintenance puts you in a dangerous situation.