Home Security (part 3): Automotive Safety

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There are some easy security fixes for your car. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive: they work for any vehicle. First and foremost, is keep it locked! I don’t get out and about very much, yet I fairly often see a car, engine running, and left unattended. That driver is A) wasting gas and B) begging for someone to steal the car. If you simply must run the engine to thaw out the car, then either do it while scraping off the windshields or get a second set of keys and lock the vehicle back up while the engine is running.

Don’t leave your car unlocked, ever, unless you are loading and unloading. Not even in your driveway. Even if your car isn’t stolen out of your driveway, any casual thief can get in and steal change, phone chargers, gloves, anything movable they see, and most importantly: a wealth of personal identification from the glove box with your ownership papers, insurance papers, and registration. Don’t make it easier for someone to steal your identity. Just like with houses, car thieves have been known to walk down the street, testing doors to see which fool left their auto unlocked. Don’t be that fool.

Keep your doors locked while driving! Modern cars often will automatically lock themselves when you reach a certain speed. Get in the habit of locking the doors yourself as soon as everyone is in the vehicle. Don’t wait for the car to do it for you. That way, when you are still moving slowly in the parking lot, it will be that much harder for someone to open your door and rob you. Don’t make it easy for thieves or potential car jackers.

Don’t store anything in plain sight that you would mind being stolen. Keep your car interior empty and clean: this sends the message that there is nothing of interest and no reason to break into the vehicle. If you have a trunk, then use it to store your purchases. If you don’t have a trunk, you may have a built in panel that pulls across the back of the vehicle. If not, then a blanket will just have to do. If you have a separate GPS unit on your dashboard, cover it with a ball cap when not in use. No burglar will waste time on a dime store ball cap; the GPS is more inviting.

Back into the space when you park! This is a very worthwhile skill to learn. I was pretty terrible at this at first, but I have gotten better at it with practice. Why back in? It is easier and quicker to drive out as you can see exactly what you are doing and if anything or anyone is in the way. This is safer too, as you can assume that the parking space you are backing into is empty. That is why you choose it, after all. But you cannot assume that the lane behind you is empty as you back out into it while people and cars are using it to go about their own business. It takes a little bit longer to back into a parking space, but the ease, speed, and safety of exiting more than make up for the extra minute or two.

Pull through parking spaces work just as well, so always pull through even if it means being a few spots further away. Being further from the building means it is easier to park, easier to exit, and while you are still circling the lot looking for a space close to the door, I am already on my way into the building, having parked (in a pull through, natch) and locked my car.

When you park at home, you still want to back into the driveway. Same reasons apply: a few extra moments to back in save you time when you are leaving in a hurry for work or an appointment. This gives you a chance to check for bikes and other junk in the driveway too, before you park. When you pull into the space, your kids may leave stuff in the driveway behind your car. When it is time to leave, you will back right over those trikes, jump-ropes, and other car damaging junk. If you have backed into the space, you can see what is laying in wait in your driveway, ready to puncture your tires. This also means that you are much less likely to back over a toddler in the driveway. That can and does happen.

When you park, look for any identifying signs so you can find your car when you leave. This can be quite important in huge parking lots with thousands of cars. The anxiety of thinking your car was stolen makes you pay less attention to your surroundings and any possible threat, while looking up and down the rows takes time. Time that you could be using to get on the road and getting home.

When you park at a huge lot for some kind of event where everyone leaves at about the same time, don’t just back into any old space. Look where the parking lot exits are. Are you closer to an exit and farther from the building? You may have to walk a little more (good exercise!) but the farther you are from the building, the fewer pedestrians and cars you will have to maneuver around in order to leave. Take a moment before parking and think about how you will leave with the hordes of other cars.

Get a cell phone charger for your car and use it. Cell phones only work if they are charged, so you might as well use the time spent driving for this purpose.

Whenever your gas gauge goes below half way, fill up the gas tank. This prevents the emergency (power outage, weather, etc) where you cannot get gas from harming you as much. If you are running on fumes and can’t buy gas, you are stuck where you are. If something awful happens — terrorists flying airplanes into city buildings — you can leave more quickly if you don’t have to stop and refuel along with everyone else.

Every time you buy gas, wash your windshields. There is a little catch sort of a thing on the gas nozzle. It lets the gas flow into the tank while you clean all the windows. Dirty windows can be a safety hazard; they are harder to see through in general and just dreadful if you are driving into the sun. The glare is blinding. A clean windshield means a lot less glare. Take a moment and wash off your headlights and taillights too. Easier for you to see and easier for other people to see you.

Check all your vehicle fluids — windshield wiper fluid, oil, radiator, brakes, transmission — and the tire pressure on a regular basis, weekly if at all possible. You will catch any problems while they are still small and ensure you don’t run out of windshield wiper fluid when you really need it (that truck sprays your car down with mud and you can’t see through the windshield).

Have a complete set of road maps for your area and know how to read and use them. Yes, yes, yes, I know you have a GPS. Sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes you need to find an alternate way because of accidents or unbelievable traffic jams as everyone in the city leaves at the same time to escape the overturned chlorine tanker car. A map can tell you alternate routes, allowing you to avoid skeevy neighborhoods you don’t want to drive through. It may be a longer trip, but also a safer one.

When you drive in your daily routine, take alternate routes. This makes your mental map of your driving area larger, more complete, and more flexible. If you have to go a different way, you can. You know where more gas stations and other services are. That could be useful.

Get a milk crate and carry some basic supplies in your trunk at all times. You should have a quart of oil, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, brake fluid, fix-a-flat in a can, dry gas, a tire gauge, powdered aluminum for the radiator, space blankets, a flashlight, a poncho, and some water and snackies. These are all items to help you get home. Carefully packed, they will fit into a standard milk crate. Make sure your spare tire is full of air and in operable condition. Do you know how to change a tire? Is the car manual in the glove box?

The powdered aluminum will fix tiny radiator leaks and it really works. If your radiator develops a slow leak, dump in the entire vial of powder, put in more antifreeze or water and you can manage to drive home. The powder works so well that it can fix radiator pinhole leaks for years. It gave our mini-van an extra fifteen years of life. The fix-a-flat can keep a tire going, without you having to change it. The tire will be ruined but you can get your car home or to the garage safely. The dry gas treatment will remove water condensation that may be in your gas lines. Sometimes, especially in the winter, that can make your car drive more poorly.

The poncho lets you change a tire or check fluids in the rain. The flashlight? The same things, only now it is dark and raining. The space blanket traps heat or repels heat depending on which side is out. If you have to stay in the car, in the winter, it can be a life-saver. A space blanket is the size of a deck of cards and is only a few dollars in the camping department. Get several, one for each person who routinely rides in your car.

Water and snackies are for that emergency that leaves you trapped on the road for hours. You can buy U.S. Coast Guard approved bags of water and emergency food bars. They are VERY expensive but they are made to be stored, without trouble, in all kinds of weather in the trunk of your car (or in your boat) for years. If you need them, you have them. If you don’t want to go this route, then store whatever granola bars and water bottles you like, BUT, you will have to rotate them as they get stale and the water bottles may freeze and break in the winter.

Faithfully follow the maintenance schedule for your car. Changing the oil regularly can add years to the life of your vehicle as can changing air filters, oil filters, and fuel filters. The maintenance schedule isn’t just to make money for the dealership. It really does help keep your car running better and longer. If you feel handy, you can get a Chilton’s guide for your car and do a great deal of this work yourself in your very own driveway.

Keep your car washed to keep corrosive road salts from damaging the finish and eventually causing rust. Your headlights will, overtime, become cloudy. There is a buffing compound available at any auto parts store that will let you polish out some of the scratches. This will help you see better at night. Doing the taillights means other people can see you better.

What does this have to do with security? A well maintained auto is far less likely to leave you stranded somewhere, at the mercy of strangers. Brakes are less likely to fail when you need them; timing belts get replaced when worn and not when they break. Clean, clearly visible signals might mean the difference between an accident and a near miss.

The final and most important piece of car security advice is to pay attention! If you drive on autopilot, yakking away on your cell phone, you may miss the accident that is about to happen. We all drive so much that it becomes easy to drive by rote. Carelessness is a big cause of accidents, just like fatigue, recklessness, and substance abuse. Not paying attention can lead to unlocked doors, and someone opening your door when you stop at the red light. Not paying attention means leaving out valuables in the back seat and then wondering why you got targeted for a smash and grab. It is hard to be mindful all the time and harder to train recalcitrant family members to do the same. But your safety and theirs can depend on you seeing that SUV blow through the red-light right in front of you.

You may think that talking to passengers would be just as distracting as talking on your cell. It isn’t, simply because your passenger will scream that a truck is headed right at you whereas your cell conversation partner has no idea that some pick-up truck just ran a stop sign and is about to t-bone you. And all those other things that distract your driving: texting (dear God, no), eating, reading, applying make-up, reaching around behind you to swat your mouthy kids, driving while drinking, getting high, or being blurry with fatigue. The less you do anything that takes your attention from the road, the less likely you are to have an accident. You either don’t cause it yourself, or, you see it coming and are able to avoid it. Oh, and wear your seatbelt, and buckle in all your passengers.

When you replace your car, before you spend any money, ask your insurance agent (or Consumer Reports) how likely your potential new car is to be stolen or vandalized. There are differences between makes and models; some types (and not necessarily the ones you expect) are far more valuable to car thieves than others. Check into the reliability of the car you are buying. How likely is it to fail unexpectedly and leave you on the side of the road? There are differences and Consumer Reports can tell you them.

If you have a choice, a light colored car is easier to see, particularly in poor visibility conditions. Dark matte finish cars disappear in the fog, the rain, dawn or dusk. Hot pink or safety yellow cars are far more visible, no matter what the conditions are. Visibility can mean the difference between an accident and a near miss.

Cars are transportation. They can be used to haul cargo and supplies. Once you get past reliability, safety, and gas mileage, they start becoming demonstrations of ego. When you look at the vehicle you are considering, how important is safety to you compared to how people admire you when you drive by? Think about your choice so you don’t have to pay more than you really want to, both upfront and over the years you drive it.

Next Week: The Alarm That Goes ‘Woof!’