You probably call it your "station car," because it gets you to the commuter station every weekday. There it sits in the parking lot until early evening, when it brings you back home. On weekends, it becomes the Mulchmobile, hauling whatever needs hauling for yard work. Chances are, it's more than five years old-in some cases, way more-and you treat it like the poor stepsister who never goes to the big dance. It gets just enough money and attention to pass state inspection every year.
Sure, it has a sticker. But how safe is it, really? "There's a big difference between what's required to pass a state inspection and what's safe," says Steve Rozansky of Family Auto Service in Baldwin." A car could pass a state inspection and still be unsafe." And in such a car you take a calculated risk on every trip, whether you're headed to the train depot or Home Depot.
We talked to some experts from AAA's Approved Auto Repair Program-all of them National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified technicians who see a lot of commuter cars at their shops in places like Dutchess, Nassau and Putnam counties. We asked, "What are some of the most common safety problems you find on second cars, beyond what the state requires to pass inspection? And what should drivers do about them? "Here's what they told us:
?? Brakes. For safety inspections, the Department of Motor Vehicles requires a technician to remove only one of the front wheels. "To get a really good look at the brakes, you've got to pull all four wheels," says Jack Gregory of Jack's Auto Service in Wassaic. "On a car that sits a lot, the back drums or rotors can get rusty. The pads could be worn, or the wheel cylinder could be leaking inside the rim." If you rely solely on an annual state inspection to check the condition of the brakes on your second car, then you're getting only 25 percent of the story.
And then you have the brake lines. The state requires a tech to look for leaks." I can't condemn them if they're rusty," explains Chris Rini of Chris' Automotive Center in Carmel. "But on most cars, the brake lines are standard steel. They're not coated. There's nothing to protect them. On foreign cars, they may be coated with rubber, which protects them from the outside. But brake fluid loves water. It absorbs moisture from the air, and over time these lines rot from the inside out." A rusty brake line may not be leaking when the tech takes a look. In a month or two, though, it could be spewing fluid every time you press the pedal. Rini recommends changing the brake fluid regularly to prevent the problem.
?? Exhaust System. On second cars, rust attacks components other than brake lines-especially the exhaust systems. "Because these cars are usually driven such short distances, the exhaust system doesn't get hot enough to burn off moisture," explains Rozansky. And a rusty exhaust system becomes a safety issue when your muffler or other component falls off and drags on the pavement-or, worse, when exhaust fumes find their way into the passenger compartment.
?? Tires. Are your tires free of visible bumps or bulges, or cuts over an inch long? Do the two most worn adjacent grooves measure at least 2/32 inch deep? Then they'll pass state inspection. The regs say nothing about dry rot-a common problem on second cars, says Rini. These vehicles usually don't accumulate much annual mileage, so the tires age more so than wear. Over time, the older tires develop dry patches on the sidewall that can lead to flats or blowouts.
?? CV Boots. All front-wheel-drive cars and some rear-wheel-drive vehicles have constant- velocity (CV) joints, which allow the wheels to move up and down over bumps and still stay connected to the drive axle. They're covered by rubber boots. Over time, the rubber cracks or splits, grease leaks out, and contaminants get in. "If road, dirt, salt or sand gets into the joint, the wheel could stop moving," explains Rozansky. "Depending on where it happens, you could go into a spin."
?? Wiper Blades. State inspection requires technicians to check the operation of the wipers and the condition of the blades. "But if they're not ripped, you can't fail them," notes Gregory. And old, dry, pitted blades that leave streaks and smears become a serious safety issue, especially in the early dark of fall and winter evenings.
?? Belts and Hoses. Years ago, belts told you when they needed changing. They chirped or squealed when they lost tension or became worn. "Nowadays, cars have spring-loaded or hydraulic tensioners, and belts almost never make noise," says Rini.
The same goes for hoses. "Today's rubber is much better than it used to be," he continues." But the problem is, hoses now usually rot from the inside out, so you really can't tell how bad they are just by looking."
The state's safety inspection checklist doesn't include belts and hoses, so you tend to forget about them on older second cars. But if the serpentine belt snaps or a hose blows, it will leave you stranded on the roadside-creating a safety problem for you and other traffic.
Although the state safety inspection provides insight into the basic condition of your vehicle, it doesn't cover everything. Many components not included in the annual inspection play a major role in your vehicle's overall safety. In addition to state inspections, all AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities offer a maintenance and safety inspection that includes all of the components mentioned above-and more. And it's free when you make an appointment or have other work done.
After all, when it comes to safety, you can't be too sure-even on your second car.