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Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions To Automobile Breakdowns

A woman in shown on the phone next to her car as passengers look outside.
Walt Brinker
A woman in shown on the phone next to her car as passengers look outside.
Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions To Automobile Breakdowns
Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions To Automobile Breakdowns GUEST:Walt Brinker, author, Roadside Survival: Low-tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns

Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. This is Southern California. We are surrounded by cars, we live our lives in cars, we know all about cars. And if something breaks down we can always call for a tow. But what if you are off a main road, it’s dark, you forgot you cell phone and your tire blows or your car just stops running? It’s amazing how quickly a roadside dilemma can turn dicey or even desperate. Joining me is Walter Brinker, author of Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns. He joins us by phone from him home in North Carolina. Walt welcome to the program. Walter Brinker: Great to be here, Maureen. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now this book is the result of your helping a couple of thousands stranded motorists on the roads. You are not a mechanic, so how do you know so much about fixing cars? Walter Brinker: It has been trial and error pretty much over the years and since I began doing this a long time ago I’ve made many mistakes and come up short many times, but I took notes. And when I didn’t have something I should have or didn’t know something that I should have known, I was back in research it or talk to somebody or found it out and tired it again and honed it in till it worked. Maureen Cavanaugh: What have you found to be the main reasons people have problems with their cars on the highway? Walter Brinker: The reasons people break down when I encountered them about three quarters of the people I find have got tire related issues. They got a blowout, the tread has come off, otherwise a flat tire or there’s some big problem with their tires. The other 25% is a mix of out of gas, overheating, the engine just cuts of because of an electrical issue or they are locked out of their cars. Those are the common reasons people break down and none of those require mechanics. Maureen Cavanaugh: How does somebody safely position their car on the road if they have a problem? What have you found people do right and what do they do wrong? Walter Brinker: The correct thing to do is– that the worst thing you can do is leave your car when it’s broken down or when your car is breaking down and about to stop rolling to leave where it’s going to get wacked by somebody else in the drive lane. So you want to get out of the drive lane on to a shoulder and out of harm’s way, as far as you can away from the driving lanes and still be, and you not tip the car over or have it tilt it to too bad and angle so it can’t be serviced. Maureen Cavanaugh: Let’s look at flat tires, tire problems are 75% of the things that strand motorists on the roads as far as your experience has told you, do you find that many people know had a change a tire? Walter Brinker: No, most folks don’t have a clue. They have never bothered to read the outdoors manual and going out and actually tried on some nice sunny day when it’s not raining and when there is not stress or nothing else going on, they’ve never actually gotten out their tools, their tire changing tools that came with the car or that are with the car now regardless of what came with the car or not and they’ve never actually tried to change the tire. Doing that is huge and the key is to pick a nice day when there’s nothing else going on you and your significant other ought to get out there and just get the book out and go through it step by step and make sure you have all your tools and all your tools worked to get all the nuts off the wheels and etc. etc. Maureen Cavanaugh: How important is it to know how to change a tire? Walter Brinker: Well, it’s not important at all until you have a flat tire. Maureen Cavanaugh: That’s true. Walter Brinker: When a flat tire comes it’s a huge deal and if you can’t– some folks say I will just call AAA. Well AAA works sometimes, AAA works great in big cities, but away from the big cities a lot of times I found that AAA and other automobile assistance companies subcontract the work out to somebody who is not on the A team. And those guys show up and maybe qualified, may not be qualified. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now in your book Roadside Survival you say that even if you don’t know how to change a tire the least you can do is make sure you have a good spare tire, right? Walter Brinker: That’s right. Have a good spare tire and have the tools to change the tire. Even if you can’t, even if you don’t know how to use the tools or can’t use the tools at least you need to have a full set of tools there and the spare tires needs to be good. Maureen Cavanaugh: Yet you find a lot of problems with people’s spare tires, they don’t know anything about them, right? Walter Brinker: The subject of spare tiers is huge when it comes to be able to cope with a disabled vehicle because of tires. I mean there are so many things that hinged on the spare tire that is incredible. Maureen Cavanaugh: You found people who don’t know how to unlock them, they don’t know where they are or they are out of air, they have never even looked at them before. What would you advise people to do you in the next day or to, just to check in and see how that spare tire is doing? Walter Brinker: Well I think there’s a couple of real fundamentals. The first fundamental is to be sure that you can access your spare tire. There’s a lot of people who have never even got the spare tire down and never taken out of the care and therefore the fastener that holds it in the car is rusted or corroded and that cannot be operated so you can’t even get the tire off the car. That’s the case with some [indiscernible] [00:05:33] have a spare tire in the trunk of the car underneath the little cardboard floor to the trunk and a lot of times that the wing nut will be corroded so you can’t get it off without a pair of pliers. A lot of times pickup trucks and large vans carry their spare tires under the rear part of the vehicle exposed to the elements. Typically there was a hole in the rear bumper where you stick a shaft through to engage a lorry mechanism that knew the spare tires itself to lower it down by cranking the shaft. Some folks typically on GM cars there’s a lock that used the same lock as the ignition key, it’s a plug lock that denies access by anybody’s shaft into their hole through the bumper to get the spare tire down, it is a security measure. And I found lot of those and I’ve had to use some liquid rinse through a scroll and then worked the key on that locked to work it right, to even get the plug out. Maureen Cavanaugh: Let’s move from tires for a minute to something that I think a lot of people are familiar with jumper cables. Using jumper cables on your battery the difference between being stuck and the car not moving at all and being able to go and get yourself a new battery somewhere, is there a certain type of jumper cable that you think is the most useful in roadside situations? Walter Brinker: Yes, the jumper cables that I hardly recommend are ones that are at least 4 gauge the number, the way they worked the thickness of the copper wire in the jumper cables is based on the number of sign to the gauge. The lower the number the bigger the copper cross section is and therefore the more wires there is. So like a 2 gauge wire is really thick. A 4 gauge wire is half that thick and 8 gauge and 16 gauge etc. So what you want to do is you want to get the thickest wire you can and that’s normally 2 gauge both commercially and you want to get long cables also, you want to get 20 foot long cables because that way you can put the cables over atop of the car like on a freeway shoulder you can’t get cars nose to nose easily or safely. Maureen Cavanaugh: Right. Walter Brinker: You can’t even get them side by side a lot of times to do jump with short cables. So you need to have long cables that will, or we can have a car pull up behind or in front of the car that needs to jump and run the cables from one battery over that car to the other car’s battery. Maureen Cavanaugh: And that’s another thing you say that people should know ahead of time how to use these cables. Walter Brinker: Oh, yes. Say again please. Maureen Cavanaugh: No, I was just saying that it’s just like changing a tire, do it on a nice sunny day when you don’t really have to change it. Walter Brinker: Maureen, can we go back we got off a spare tire for a second… Maureen Cavanaugh: Sure. Walter Brinker: I want to say one little thing about spare tires. Maureen Cavanaugh: Please do. Walter Brinker: 80% of the people who have a tire issue have got a flat spare tire. 80% that means if three quarters of the people that I find have got tire issues and 80% of them have got a flat spare tire that means that 60% or so of all people I have encountered, all those 2000 people I have encountered could have helped their situation by having air in their spare tire. That’s huge. Maureen Cavanaugh: Yeah, well if you don’t even know where it is probably flat, right? Walter Brinker: That’s right. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now why did you get involved in providing this kind of roadside assistance, Walt? Walter Brinker: I guess it kind of snuck up on me. Years ago when I was in the army back in 1980, I was in Kansas and I encountered a woman who had an engine that is stalled and so all she needed was a jumpstart. Her head was up on the car and I came over and ran my cables over to her car and gave her a jumpstart. And what struck me at the time was it was Christmas season of 1980 and two things struck me right between the eyes – one of them was how relieved she was at being back on the road again. The second thing was that how good it made me feel to do that. And so I thought wow I need to do this more often, it’s therapeutic to the max. And so I started looking for cars that were disabled and needed that they were under stressed I should say. And I discovered that cars needed things besides being jumped to get them going again many times. So they didn’t have the skills or the tools or the knowledge to diagnose much less help out anybody, so I began slowly overtime acquiring smarts and tools and gadgets and stuff often like I said before I didn’t have it the first time round so I went out and got it got that pace for the next time. It’s over time I build up a repertoire of knowledge and hardware to do these things. Maureen Cavanaugh: Are some of these things or most of these things that you’ve acquired something that everybody should be carrying around with them? I mean you talked about in Roadside Survival having an emergency kit, you’ve already mentioned jumper cables, what else should be in that emergency kit? Walter Brinker: Well, I carry a lot more stuff than the average bear needs to have out there. But I do recommend in this book that I wrote certain things that people have to be sure that they can get by. The most fundamental thing of all is a complete set of tire changing tools designed for that vehicle that you know are going to work, which includes a key to the locking lug nuts and a key to gain access to the spare tire if there is a lock on the spare tire access. And you want again a serviceable fully inflated spare tire made for your vehicle, it’s amazing how many people are carrying around a spare tire in their car they will now work on their vehicle because they swapped it out with somebody else’s spare tire. Spare tires are not generic. Maureen Cavanaugh: What about those reflective lights that you see some people put up around their car if it’s disabled? I don’t know if everybody has them in their trunk or in their emergency kit, are they good to have? Walter Brinker: I use reflecting triangles. I got a set of three of them for about $25 in my local car parts store. And the first thing I do when I stop especially at night or on a busy freeway is get the triangles out. If I decide I’m going to stop and give help, the first thing I do is put my vest on a reflecting vest. The second thing I do is I get the triangles out. And there is a diagram in the book that shows exactly how to do that in accordance with the DOT Regulations and whatever. Basically it’s the first one goes 10 feet behind the vehicle the second goes 100 feet behind the vehicle, the third goes 200 feet behind the vehicle to get plenty of warning to people that are oncoming that there is a problem u[ here and they need to be extra careful. Maureen Cavanaugh: And since most of the problems that you encountered are tire related, is there any quick way that someone uninitiated with cars and can just look at their tiers and try to figure it out whether or not they are in good shape? Walter Brinker: [indiscernible] [00:12:37] but I advocate putting your tires under the care of a good tire dealer. The one single thing you can do to prevent getting in trouble on the road which has the highest degree of statistical impact is to be sure that the four tires on your vehicle or six whatever there is they are on the pavement on the wheels of the vehicles that those tires are in good shape and they are inspected regularly like every 5000 miles by a tire dear and he will inspect them and they’ll rebalance the wheels make sure that are not going to vibrate and they are not out of balance and they’ll also point out any unusual wear patterns that are occurring on that tires which indicates bad alignment. Maureen Cavanaugh: Right. Walter Brinker: Those are the things that you need to check. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay, I have to end at there. I’ve been speaking with Walt Brinker he is author of Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns. Walt, thank you so much for speaking with us. Walter Brinker: Maureen, could I ask folks to go to Maureen Cavanaugh: There you did it. Thank you.

Imagine this: You're off a main road, it's dark, you forgot your cellphone and your tire blows or your car just stops running. That roadside calamity can turn into a dangerous situation.

Book: Roadside Survival, by Walt Brinker
Walt Brinker
Book: Roadside Survival, by Walt Brinker

Walt Brinker, author of "Roadside Survival: Low-tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns," said you don't have to be a mechanic to solve many of your roadside problems.

Most people find themselves stranded due to their tires, Brinker told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday.


Unfortunately, he said, "most folks don't have a clue when it comes to a changing a tire."

Brinker recommends learning how to change a tire but also ensuring your car has certain items — jumper cables and an extra gallon of gas, for example.

Most importantly, if your car does break down, move away from from other vehicles, he said.

"You want to get it out of the drive lane and on the shoulder, out of harm's way," Brinker said.

Brinker said he's provided more than 2,000 free roadside assists as a hobby. Brinker said he's learned everything about cars from "trial and error."


Emergency Kit

Here are a few items you should keep in your vehicle.

• Road atlas to determine your location — you may not always have GPS signal

• Old beach towel — to pad your knees when changing a tire

• Clean tarp — for use in lieu of beach towel when ground is wet

• Pressure gauge — and know how much air your tire requires

• Leather gloves to protect hands from exposed steel wires from blown out tires

• Set of three reflecting warning triangles

• Light-reflecting vest

• Piliers

• Jumper cables

• 1 gallon gas can

• Roll of duct tape

• Gallon of water

• Extra engine oil

• Funnels, for water and oil

• 12-volt air compressor to inflate tires to operating pressure

Source: Walt Brinker