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Common Car Problems and How to Spot Them

Man, isn't that just the thing? You're driving along in your car, and you think to yourself, "Wait, what if my car has a common problem?" Well, it wouldn't be surprising; those problems are pretty common. Here's a few and how to tell:

Headlight out.

How can you tell? It's dark and your light isn't working. Seriously, though, if it's dark out, it can be difficult to tell if one of your headlights isn't working, especially if they are somewhat dim in the first place. If you can, check while parked, or pull up to a closed storefront and check your reflection in the window. (This won't work well if you pull up to someplace with all their lights on, although maybe you could ask someone going to their own car to see if your lights are all on. You might have to deal with the police in that case, though, and they'll tell you in the form of a fine if one of your headlights is in fact dead. Although you would know for certain, then, so … ?)

​How can you fix it? You can bring it to a dealer and pay them to do it, or you can stop at a parts store and get the appropriate replacement. Then your owner's manual will list the procedure for replacement, since every manufacturer of each and every model seems to feel they have to do something nifty and unique for their headlight, as though there's some kind of design award for "Least Accessible Headlight" that gets them all feted in the auto magazines.

"Exquisite! I burned myself quite severely on that light I had to insert from underneath the bumper! A masterstroke of cruelty that I had to use both hands and a small pliers clenched in my teeth!" - Car and Headlamp Quarterly, probably?

Dead battery.

How can you tell? The car won't start. Although that might be a faulty alternator or starter coil, too, so your best bet is to use a battery checker, or bring it to somewhere that will check it for you (many places will do this for free).

How can you fix it? If it is the battery, you have a few options, all of them pretty straightforward. You can charge the battery with a jump pack, request a jump start from someone with cables (distressingly rare for people to have cables nowadays; don't know why), or replace the battery. All of these require that you know how to tell which terminal is negative and which is positive: Black is always, always negative. The best way we've found to remember it is to think of negative, gloomy, emo, or goth people, dressed in black all the time.

All right, she's not so gloomy, but you get the idea.

Flat tire.

How can you tell? If it burst, you may have heard a loud noise like a gunshot, or a thrumming noise like a bass drum being used for a Neil Peart solo. Then you probably noticed the car tilting, and the thumping noises after that. If it was punctured, you probably just noticed the tilting and thumping. Your first priority in the former case is to pull over as soon as possible; a burst tire is going to shred itself off your wheel pretty rapidly and make the car very hard to control. A punctured tire will allow you to pull over with less panic, but you're unlikely to know this at the time.

How can you fix it? If it's burst, pull out the spare, pull out the jack, and use them. It's frustrating and dirty, but it's totally doable. Just make sure of two things: You put the jack underneath something that's solid, not the fender or the edge of the wheel well, and on top of something solid, not a rock balanced on another rock poking out of a mud puddle at the edge of the ditch. Oh, and keep track of the lug nuts: Maybe put them in the hubcap. You do not, trust us, do not want to go searching for them in the darkness in the grass at the edge of the highway at one a.m. while your car is looming over you at a twenty-degree angle with the jack "firmly" in the gravel. And use the spare for as little time as possible, with a minimal distance, preferably straight to a tire shop to replace it within fifty miles. (Okay, that's four things.)

If it's punctured, you can use a can of tire sealant to be out of there in six minutes, tops. Same thing for the replacement tire, though.

Look for more useful advice for things that it would be useful to know in future installments!

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