• April is National Car Care Month
  • Bad habits are your enemy
  • Here's how to keep those wheels in shape

Now is a good time for Car Care Month, since us residents of the Northern Hemisphere are just breaking free from winter's icy neck hold. For drivers living in snowy areas, there's road salt to be hosed off, washer fluid to top up and tire condition to check.

There's absolutely no downside to taking care of our cars. Emergency visits to the vet or to see a sick relative are stressful enough already without having to peer through a murky windshield because our wiper blades have perished. On top of that, it helps keep the resale values up.

We do, however, lapse into bad car care habits. There's no judgment here; we all do it from time to time. But a little awareness can go a long way.

Cleanliness Is Goodliness

Keep it clean. It's obvious, but a dirty car will not impress prospective employers, clients or partners. Bird poop, tree sap and road grime affect the paintwork. Hand-washing is a great way of checking the body's condition, seeing if any rust is bubbling through or finding any scratches or dings you hadn't noticed before. Use proper car-cleaning products, and be sure to wax.

It's tempting to run the car through an automated car wash, but those big revolving brushes can scratch the paint, and the runners along which cars are pulled tend to scar alloy wheel rims. Sometimes there'll be no choice, but make it an exception rather than the rule.

Thought for Food

A car is not a private little restaurant. Eating on the move is distracted driving. Chowing down in a parking lot will inevitably leave crumbs that you and perhaps others will end up sitting in, along with some nice oily stains on the cloth upholstery. Anyway, who wants their car to smell like a burger joint? If your journey is so long that you need a meal, or at least a coffee, it's probably a good idea to take a break.

While we're on the subject of distracted driving, not texting is a great way to care for your car, your life and the cars and lives of everyone around you. Here endeth the sermon.

Be Level-Headed

Check your levels regularly: washer reservoir, radiator, brake and steering fluids, tire pressures. As we all know, properly inflated tires are not only safer but also contribute to optimum fuel economy. It also means we can inspect for uneven tire wear and tread depth, and make sure that there are no screws or stones stuck in there.

While your head is under the hood, inspect the condition of those hoses and belts. And are the wiper blades OK?

Go Toward the Lights

There might be a simple reason why the yellow "Check Engine" symbol is lighting up the dashboard. It could just be a loose fuel-filler cap, for example. Whatever it is, please don't ignore it. Some places will diagnose for free, or you can use an OBD-II (on-board diagnostic) code reader, which only costs about $40.

Same applies to the light indicating that maintenance is required, or the sticker in the windshield noting that the next service is needed at X,XXX miles. A properly serviced car is safer, stops better and runs more economically. Buyers of pre-owned vehicles also love to see a fully documented service history. Remember that fact when selling your car. Conversely, if you intend to keep it forever, why wouldn't you look after it?

Make sure all the headlamp, brake, turn-signal, reversing and tail-lamp bulbs are working. The cops only need one little reason to stop someone, and at the very least there might be the inconvenience of a fix-it ticket.

Park and Recreation

It's common sense, but try not to park too close to anyone or anything else. If there's a slot just next to a huge SUV whose tires are just on or really near the line, look around for another space.

Stay away from the shopping-cart corral. Shopping carts don't have brakes and are often piloted by people who are thinking of almost anything else.

Look out for reversing lights when driving down the parking-lot lanes. You can worry about the whereabouts of your shopping list in a minute.

If there's some maneuvering involved, don't ram the transmission into reverse while still going forward, and vice versa. Come to a stop and then shift.

Surface Tension

See those gouges in the asphalt where the road dips? That's where other cars have bottomed out and scraped. That doesn't have to be you. Approach them slowly.

Soda cans, exhaust-pipe brackets, elk: There are all sorts of things lying around in the road. Try not to drive over them or into them. Just keep an eye out for what's in your path. Basically, don't be negligent and don't take unnecessary risks.

Actually, let's make every month Car Care Month. It doesn't take much to keep on top of things, and the rewards far outweigh the time and effort involved.

What it means to you: A car that's well-maintained is safer, cheaper to run, more reliable and worth more money at resale time.

author photo

Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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