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Educating Yourself to Better Understand Your Vehicle

Woman Learning About Her Vehicle

Picture this: you're driving down the road in an area you're not totally comfortable with. All of a sudden, you realize, something's not quite right with your car. You pull over, terrified because you don't know the first thing about cars, let alone car repairs. You begin to panic and don't know what's safe to check or what could possibly be wrong.

This situation sounds a little too familiar for a lot of people. Nothing's worse than feeling helpless during an emergency situation. To avoid these types of circumstances, it's important to educate yourself on understanding your vehicle. Understanding your car's different parts and signs of distress could save you from suffering an anxiety attack.

Being educated on how your vehicle works can also save you money on repairs down the road. Keeping an eye out for those minor car troubles will help you avoid those larger bills. To educate yourself, here are some tips and advice to keep in mind when handling your vehicle. 

Engine Light 

The first thing to remember when your check engine light illuminates is that there's probably more than one problem happening under your hood. Some low risk causes for the check engine light may be:

  • Faulty or dysfunctional fuel cap
  • Damaged thermostat
  • O2 (Oxygen) or Mass Airflow sensors not working correctly
  • Ignition coil, spark plug, or fuel injector needs a replacement

Mass Airflow Sensor

A sensor used to determine the mass flow rate of air entering a fuel-injected combustion engine. The air mass information is necessary for the engine control unit to balance and deliver the correct fuel mass to the engine.

These aren't major problems that will necessarily stop your car from working. They're minor inconveniences that can lead to bigger issues if left unattended. Some more serious high-risk causes for the check engine light may be:

  • Rattling, knocking, tapping, other unusual noises
  • Rising smoke
  • Severe loss of power (usually high loss)
  • Overheating
  • Serious decline in gas mileage
  • Vehicle does not start
  • Check Engine light begins flashing

If any of these issues arise, it's best to pull your vehicle over and call for roadside assistance.


Your brakes are the most important part of your car; they're in charge of slowing and stopping the car. Do you know how they work? When you push your foot down on the brakes, you cause a connected lever to push a piston into the master cylinder. The master cylinder is filled with hydraulic fluid, which is pushed around until it reaches cylinders near the brakes of each wheel. This creates enough friction to slow down or stop the car, depending on how much pressure you apply to the brakes.

A very important component to watch out for is the health and well-being of your brakes. Getting them checked and serviced on a regular basis insures a high level of safety for you and your passengers. Even if you get your brakes checked regularly it's important to ask: what are some warning signs that signal my brakes need inspecting? Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Noise: screeching, grinding or clicking noises when applying the brakes
  • Pulling: vehicle pulls to one side while braking
  • Low Pedal: brake pedal nearly touches the floor before engaging
  • Hard Pedal: must apply extreme pressure to the pedal before brakes engage
  • Grabbing: brakes grab at the slightest touch to the pedal
  • Vibration: brake pedal vibrates or pulses, even under normal braking conditions
  • Light: brake light is illuminated on your vehicle's dashboard

If you notice one of these signs, the repairs and replacements don't have to be expensive. To avoid these signs, here are some tips to keep your brakes working:

  • Do your brake maintenance on time
  • Try using quality OEM or mechanic-recommended parts
  • Drive safely
  • Compare replacing vs. repairing: if your mechanic tells you to replace your calipers, see if they can be repaired


Another thing to keep an eye out for is the health of your tires. Examining your tires for wear and tear, along with checking tire pressure and alignment should be a frequent ritual in your car care routine. It maximizes your vehicle's safety, along with improving gas mileage and performance. The non-profit Car Care Council recommends some procedures to ensure your tires are in working condition:

  • Penny Test: all tires in the Unites States have tread wear bars. As your tires begin to wear, these bars will become even with the tire's tread signaling you need to replace your tires. To check and see if your tires are worn, perform a penny test. If the tread hides Lincoln's head, you're in the clear. If his head is exposed, it's time to make an appointment with an auto repair shop.
  • Check the pressure of all tires (including the spare) on a monthly basis: make sure to keep a closer eye on tire pressures during colder months because colder temperatures cause your tire pressure to drop.
  • Check tread for uneven and irregular wear and tear: keep an eye out for cuts and bruises along the sidewalls. This could be a sign that your tire is about to blow out.
  • Inflate tires to recommended pressure levels
  • Rotate tires every 6,000 miles to promote uniform tire wear

Have alignment checked at least once a year: if your vehicle shakes or pulls to one side, it could be a sign of an alignment issue.

Warning Smells 

When you have kids, it's inevitable they'll make the car smell a certain way. Maybe it's those cheerios the toddler lodged in between the seats four months ago, or that spilled apple juice on the ground. These smells are normal car smells that are in dire need of a deep scrub. The warning smells I'm talking about could mean your car is in danger. When something in your car begins to break down, it gives off a few strong scents. Here are some warning smells to look out for when on the road:

  • Burnt Rubber: drive belts and rubber hoses on the engine have worked loose due to friction
  • Burnt Oil Smell: oil is leaking onto the exhaust system
  • Rotten Eggs: your catalytic converter is not converting hydrogen sulfide in the exhaust to sulfur dioxide properly
  • Maple Syrup Smell: the car is leaking engine coolant from a component related to the car's cooling system
  • Burning Carpet: brakes are overheated, or the brake pad material is worn down
  • Gasoline Smell: gas leak, possibly a fuel injector line or the fuel tank

 Considering all these tips and words of advice, make sure to remember:

  • Don't ignore the check engine light
  • Remember to change fluids and filters
  • Don't neglect your tires
  • Follow a service schedule
  • Keep your car clean
  • Drive safe and smart

It's always important to give your vehicle the attention it needs and deserves. If you treat it with care, it will respond! Hopefully this article yielded some helpful information in regard to car maintenance! For more tips and information, check out the Car Care Council's Car Care Guide!

This article was written with the help and resources from the non-profit Car Care Council. The "Be Car Care Aware" campaign is a consumer education program about the benefits of regular vehicle care, maintenance and repair, designed to provide knowledge from all segments of the automotive aftermarket industry.

The non-profit Car Care Council is the source of information for the "Be Car Care Aware" consumer education campaign promoting the benefits of regular vehicle care, maintenance and repair to consumers. To view the Car Care Council's consumer education website, visit

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