Top 3 Vehicle Mechanical Failures—Plus 2 More to Watch Out For
We buckle up and we put the phone down. We check our mirrors and we check our oil. But no matter how safely and defensively we drive, nothing can quite prepare us for a sudden mechanical failure. These events can sometimes be preventable with proper vehicle care, or they may be completely out of our control due to the fault of the manufacturer or a mechanic. But no matter who is to blame, they are frightening, dangerous, and potentially deadly.
While the numbers aren’t in yet for last year, 2016 had a record 53.2 million vehicles recalled by automakers in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is the third year in a row to witness an increasing number of safety recalls; does it mean vehicles are being produced more negligently, or does it mean safety checks have just become more rigorous? That has yet to be determined. And while mechanical failure is not the leading cause of accidents in the United States, it’s important to keep in mind that they do happen. So let’s take a look at the three most common mechanical failures and what you may be able to do to avoid becoming a victim.
And, if you’re curious to see if your vehicle has any outstanding recalls you’re not aware of, simply plug your Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, into the NHTSA’s handy new recall tool.
Failure #1: Tires
According to an NHTSA crash report, tire trouble accounted for about 35 percent of crashes where mechanical failure was to blame, making it the leading cause vehicle failure crashes.
Two of the most common types of problems with tires are tire blowouts and worn tires.
- Tire blowouts. These are generally associated with under- and over-inflation. Underinflated tires flex more than those at normal pressure; this flexing make them heat up, especially in warmer weather conditions, degrading the rubber and leading to an eventual blowout. While not as common, overinflation usually happens by accident when manually filling your tires at a gas station air pump. Taking on poor road conditions, like a pothole, with an overinflated tire can cause it to rupture and burst. Tire blowouts drastically reduce your ability to control the vehicle all at once, causing crashes. Learn how you can try to take control of the situation and maneuver through a blowout here.
- Worn tires. Over time, tires will start to wear thin, losing their tread and compromising their grip. This can be especially dangerous during poor weather conditions such as snow, sleet, and rain. Worn tires are more prone to slippage, making them less responsive and requiring greater braking distances. How often you should get your tires checked really depends on how often you drive and in what weather conditions; the popular “penny test” is one way to keep track of your treads.
The best way to avoid a blowout is to be proactive. Regularly replace tires before they lose their tread, and maintain optimal tire pressure (be sure to follow the recommended pressure ratings on the side of your tire, noted as PSI, or Pressure per Square Inch).
Also, be sure to have your alignment checked regularly. Misaligned tires cause them to wear out quickly, but you can often self-diagnose a misalignment if you feel abnormal virbration while driving or if the vehicle seems to “pull” to the left or right.
Failure #2: Brakes
According to the same crash stats report, brake issues account for about 22 percent of vehicle failure crashes, placing them in the runner up position. Bad brakes are a major factor in rear-end collisions, where the inability to stop in time causes a vehicle to ram right into the vehicle in front.
Four common contributing factors to brake-related crashes include:
- Loss of brake fluid pressure. A leak in the brake line, caliper or wheel cylinder can cause insufficient pressure in the brake line, compromising brake performance; pay attention to your warning lights!
- Air pressure. If you pump the brakes and the pedal goes all the way to the floor, this is a sign that air pressure in the brake line is too low to be driving responsibly.
- ABS malfunctions. Your Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) is designed to stop wheels from locking up when you hit the brakes hard to prevent loss of control. A malfunction can hinder your vehicle’s braking performance.
- Worn brake pads and discs. The brake pads and discs in your car wear out a little bit more with each and every use, making it more difficult to stop your vehicle without long stop distances.
A word of warning: today’s new automatic braking systems give some drivers a false-sense of security. While beneficial in many circumstances, worn brakes are worn brakes, and they aren’t going to work well whether it’s you pumping them or the vehicle’s own technologies. The only surefire way to prevent these issues is regular maintenance and inspection performed by a reputable mechanic every 30,000 miles (the typical minimum lifetime of brake pads).
Failure #3: Steering & Suspension
The third most-cited reason for car accidents but one that occurs with less frequency is a combination of “steering/suspension/transmission/engine-related problems,” which comes in at just three percent.
However, this statistic can be deceiving; part of the reason these issues are rarely reported is that they’re far more difficult to document. While a blown tire or worn brakes are easy to spot, damage to the suspension caused by wear and tear is harder to identify post-crash.
Steering and suspension problems can cause a loss of control over your vehicle at inopportune moments. Transmission and engine problems could keep you from being able to accelerate quickly if the need arises—leaving you stranded in an intersection with oncoming traffic.
As with most vehicle issues, routine maintenance is the best way to prevent problems. You may also consider asking your mechanic for an OBD-II system check. This is generally a free service in which your vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system is connected to a specialized computer to check for error codes.
Other Potential Mechanical Failures
If you’ve been doing your math, you’ve probably noticed that the percentages for these top three vehicle failures add up to just 60 percent—that leaves 40 percent of mechanical failures completely unaccounted for! So, what are some other possible failures? Here’s two more issues that could be accidents just waiting to happen.
- Headlights, Taillights & Turn Signals. Oftentimes, we may not realize that any of these three critical features aren’t working properly until someone else lets us know. This is particularly dangerous in inclement weather, as they help you to see better and others to see you better. Headlight and taillights are often responsible for rear-end accidents, while faulty turn signals are a leading cause of side-swiping; without working blinkers, your lane changes are made unannounced.
- Windshield Wipers. Florida is known for its rainy season. Those heavy afternoon showers can strike without warning so it’s important to give your wipers a quick check before you hit on the road. You’ll also want to be sure that not only are they operational, but that the blades aren’t damaged; they’re inexpensive and easy to replace if needed.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this can be especially true when it comes to your vehicle, so have it checked regularly. Of course, despite your best efforts, accidents can still happen to the best drivers in the most well-maintained vehicles. If you or a loved one is involved in an accident caused by another driver’s negligence or a mechanical failure that you suspect may be the fault of the manufacturer or a mechanic, be sure to find an experienced auto accident attorney to help you as soon as possible.