WDEL's Road Scholar: Prevention and preparation the keys to surviving roadside breakdowns

Walt Brinker, author of "Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns", makes an emergency repair on Interstate 10 in Texas (Courtesy/ Walt Brinker)

Picture this: It's a wet December day with blustery, raw winds and daylight quickly diminishing. You're headed home from work on a back road in Christiana Hundred, because the traffic on southbound Route 141 near Greenville is far too jammed to bear. The "Check Engine" light has been displayed since the weekend and you just remembered you didn't call your mechanic earlier in the day. Suddenly, the car begins to sputter and you lose power steering. You struggle to get the car to the side of this two-lane road without a shoulder and now you're stranded just off a blind curve.

The scenario is easily a helpless and terrifying one. And one--according to Walt Brinker, author of "Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns"--that can be easily avoided.

"Listen to your car when you drive. It'll tell you when it's about to fail," he recently reminded Road Scholar.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel wrote the guide after years of aiding drivers on roadways he would travel. He revealed this assistance allowed him to develop a broad system of tools and techniques that could address nearly any kind of breakdown--information with which others should be equipped.

"I believe that people can, to a large degree, prevent breakdowns by taking precautionary measures ahead of time," Brinker offered, "and they can also bail themselves out if they do get in trouble."

Brinker's foray into cataloguing his roadside survival knowledge started with a column that would regularly appear in the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, called "Walt's Tips".

"I provide a vignette of an actual assist I've done," he recounted, "and the bottom line of the whole thing is how they could have prevented the whole thing in the first place."

Brinker advised that, of the 200 million licensed drivers in the United States, AAA receives nearly 30 million calls from them annually for assistance. That's just a fraction of the actual breakdowns, he suggested. And even these "commercial roadside assisters", as Brinker called them, have limitations--if only for where a stranded motorist can rely on them.

"(They're) good around the cities, where they have their main office," he explained, "but if you get out in the country--outside the perimeter of where that agency does business--they tend to subcontract it out to others that are not always that competent. And so, even if you have insurance like that, you're not always guaranteed of getting good, quality assistance out there."

Brinker submitted that about three-quarters of all the assists he's made have had some sort of tire-related issue.

"Blowouts, a tread came off, or otherwise have a flat tire."

He suggested consumers buy the right tires--with a free replacement warranty if damage should occur--and always ensure they're properly inflated.

"Tire inflation is critical," he reinforced. "Under-inflated tires are the single reason for blowouts because the side wall flexes excessively driving down the highway."

Brinker reminded that tires should be checked for cold pressure--before the tire has been driven or after it has been sitting for three hours. To aid more accurate readings and inflation, he suggested a 12-volt air compressor as one of those items every vehicle should stow in its roadside kit.

"Make sure the tires on your car that are rolling are in good shape."

But it's not just the wheels in motion that can prove faulty.

"Spare tires I found," Brinker revealed, "80 percent of them are flat or too low in air to be used."

(Courtesy/Walt Brinker)

Other scenarios for vehicle breakdowns which Brinker has encountered have been: running out of gas, overheating, electrical issues, and lockouts. Of course, some preventive measures for these common problems are quite simple--but nearly all of them require a level of preparation.

(Courtesy/Walt Brinker)

"I'm amazed at how many folks drive around without the complete kit of tools that came with their car."

For many other preventive steps, Brinker conceded, a professional mechanic might be required. But the first line of defense for the vehicle's diagnosis is its driver.

"You're job is to listen and notice things like wheel vibration, mushy handling, pulling to one side, funny odors, excess exhaust," he listed. "Anything unusual like that. And then take it to the mechanic and get it checked out so the breakdown gets prevented in the first place."

Brinker's book also covers a host of safety issues drivers must consider when they're in their lonesome predicament, especially where someone chooses to pull off.

"The most fundamental thing during a breakdown--if at all possible--get the vehicle out of the drive lane," he urged. "Onto a safe shoulder that's big enough, into a rest area, onto an exit. Anywhere off the highway because you're just a prime candidate for getting clobbered by somebody coming up behind you if you don't do that."

Short of equipping vehicles with all the tools Brinker recommends, you should--at the very least--add the guide to your glove box. Available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble, it could prove to be a good read the next time you're waiting for that inevitable roadside assist.

"The website and the book are my best shot at reaching those 200 million drivers, so they can prevent breakdowns and bail themselves out."


Contact Andrew Sgroi with Road Scholar story ideas to andrew@dbcmedia.com or follow him on Twitter at @Cuse92.