Girls Auto Clinic: On-the-Road Safety Tips from a Do-It-Herselfer

Patrice Banks
Former “auto airhead” Patrice Banks empowers women to take charge of their cars and their cars’ maintenance.

Patrice Banks, a former engineer and auto airhead, routinely ignored dashboard light warnings and drove her cars into the ground. Rather than trade in another car or face one more unscrupulous mechanic, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Banks became a certified auto technician. And she decided to share her new knowledge in the form of a friendly, entertaining guide to basic car maintenance geared towards women. The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide is a one-stop “do-it-herself” guide to auto maintenance, repairs, and roadside emergencies.

Banks discovered that although the majority of car owners and licensed drivers are women, fewer than two percent of auto mechanics are female. She opened a full-service, all-female garage and now gives empowering auto workshops to women and girls all across the Philadelphia area.

With summer vacations beckoning us to hit highways and byways, we asked Banks for suggestions on getting your car ready and meeting common challenges while on the road.

What should you do to get a car ready for a long road trip?

Be on the lookout for any leaks, strange sounds, or handling, or any dashboard lights on so you can have them addressed before you leave.

See if your mechanic offers any sort of vehicle checkover or inspection. If not, ask them to check your brakes, radiator hoses, drive belt, leaks under the car, and looseness in the steering and suspension.

Some things you can check yourself:

  1. Pop your hood and check all your fluids. These fluids include engine oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid, coolant, and transmission fluid (if applicable). Power steering fluid, brake fluid, and coolant have reservoir bottles with level indicators. If any are low or empty, take the car to the mechanic for diagnosis and repair.
  2. Check your battery. Do you have a lot of corrosion on the terminals? Clean off   the greenish-white powder with baking soda, water, and a toothbrush. Coke is often used as well to remove battery corrosion.
  3. Check tire tread and air pressure. Summer has many sudden torrential downpours. You don’t want to drive on slick, wet roads with no tire tread. Check each tire for low tread and low air pressure. Tire tread should be at least 3 mm thick. Fill the tire with air if needed but do not overinflate. Average air pressure for tires is 33psi. Don’t forget your spare tire! Many people have learned the hard way that you can’t change a flat tire with a flat spare.
  4. Check all your lights. With a friend, check to make sure the car’s exterior light bulbs aren’t burnt out. Check the headlights, high beams, brake lights (don’t forget the third brake light), turn signals, and reverse lights.
  5. Check your wipers and washer fluid. Heavy rains can make driving difficult and scary. Make sure your wipers are in tip-top shape to handle the storms. The windshield washer bottle under the hood should be full.
  6. Check your maintenance schedule (in your owner’s manual or online) and complete any mileage maintenance tasks before you head out.
  7. Know how to jump start, how to change a tire, and what your dashboard lights mean—or have a membership service like AAA to help you.

What should you have on hand in case of emergencies?

  • Registration & insurance information
  • Flashlight
  • Spare tire or patch kit with portable air compressor (and all the tools to change the tire, including jack and lug wrench)
  • Jump box or jumper cables
  • Extra gallon of coolant and 2–3 quarts of oil (check your owner’s manual to make sure you have the correct type)
  • Hazard triangles

What’s the best way to deal with unexpected breakdowns?

The best way to avoid unexpected breakdowns is to keep up with your scheduled maintenance. That includes replacing and inspecting certain parts and systems at mileage intervals when they may be expected to fail. Replacing parts as recommended will lower your chances of having them fail while you are on the road.

But things can still happen so it’s good to be prepared. First of all, don’t panic! You need to stay calm in order to make rational decisions. Put your hazards on and pull over to the side of the road as soon as it is safe to do so. (If you have a flat tire, try to pull over to the side of the road that the flat is on, so you aren’t attempting to change the tire with your back to passing traffic). Stay near the car unless you smell smoke or see flames.

Be prepared with a roadside assistance service such as AAA, or spend some time looking up reputable towing services so you have a number on hand and don’t need to find one on the spot.

If you feel unsafe, call 911.

In a emergency, what’s the best way to find help, a tow service, or a mechanic?

The best approach to this is to not have to be finding these services when an emergency happens, but to be prepared beforehand by doing some research to find what I call your PCT (Primary Care Technician)   and finding a towing company that has good reviews. Your insurance company can provide a reputable towing service for you.

How do you deal with a mechanic you’ve never met before?

Know the basic information about your vehicle—year, make, model, engine size, VIN, or have in on hand so you can easily find it.

Know your maintenance schedule and how to care for your car so you can be prepared for upsells.

Never be embarrassed to ask questions. I always tell women, your PCT should be able to show you and explain to you what they are talking about. If they can’t explain it to you in a way you can understand, find someone who can. A great PCT should be friendly and patient, a good communicator, and understand the balance between urgent and non-urgent repairs. In an emergency, this may be hard to find, but these should be requirements for your general PCT. If they can’t answer your questions or explain it in a way that you understand it, you have every right to bring your car—and money—somewhere else.

The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide is an extensive auto manual that everyone should own! Get one for your bookshelf or glovebox. It’s available on Amazon.