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Tyre burst? 5 ways your car can seriously - and dangerously - let you down

2017-12-12 09:08

Image: iStock

Duncan Alfreds

Cape Town - You're packed, your ride is fuelled and ready to take your family on a festive-season holiday road trip but unknown to you, mechanical gremlins could be planning to ruin your trip.

Your car is designed to move and keep going, so it's only a serious and fatal failure when your car goes against the script with unexpected stops.

A sudden stop while you're on the move is dangerous at best in South Africa, though could be a result of preventable maintenance.

Here are some common ways your car could let you down:

1 Tyre burst

There is nothing quite as frightening when you're cruising at highway speeds than a disastrous tyre blow-out. Depending on which wheel, a typical tyre burst can be a scary, and sadly at times fatal, experience.

While a burst in one of the back tyres may seem easier to handle than a front burst, it is unpredictable because it could cause the vehicle to "fish tail" as you lose control of the rear of the car.

A front-tyre burst is perhaps more shocking because the car will instantly veer in the direction of the burst tyre. If you are driving at speed, the odds of a crash are very high, especially if it's the front right tyre which would pull the car into oncoming traffic.

What should you do?

Make sure to check your tyre tread often and if you drive over a huge pothole (regularly encountered on SA's roads) or similar road hazard, give your car a once-over just to be sure.

If your tyre shows any signs of swelling along the wall, shallow tread or uneven wear, it could indicate that a tyre is at risk.

If you feel serious vibrations along your steering wheel, it is a likely indicator of tyre delamination.

When you do replace tyres, make sure you replace either the pair opposite each other or all four to ensure that your car remains balanced.

It also helps to rotate your tyres to ensure even wear. (Tip: Have this done when you perform your regular service as it's often overlooked)


Tyre burst, engine seized while driving... have you experienced mechanical disaster on our roads? Share your story with us

2 Wheels falling off

Yes, it can happen and it's a disaster when it does, even if your car is stationary. A wheel coming off in transit throws off the balance of the car worse than a tyre burst because there is no rubber on the road.

There are number of ways that wheels can come off but thankfully, there will be plenty of warning signs if you know what to look for.

The most common way for a wheel to come off is via a failure of the wheel bearing. Over time, the wheel bearing wears as it handles the massive forces generated by your car accelerating, braking and turning.

A wheel bearing failure can cause the hub to fail and the entire wheel to come off. (Duncan Alfreds, Wheels24)

When it begins to fail, you will hear a low growl when your car moves but not when idling at traffic lights or stop streets.

The wheel will also wobble when you shake it (Make sure the car is secured and stationary when you do this).

In the case where the wheel hub fails due to a failed bearing, it is likely that the hub and brake disc will need to be replaced.

Wheels can also fall off if you have not secured the wheel nuts.

Luckily, this will also give you a warning of a vibration of the steering, especially when you turn. Make sure you tighten wheel nuts in opposing order to ensure that the wheel is fitted neatly on to the hub.

Be sure not to overtighten the nuts as this could damage the hub and wheel studs.

What can you do if a wheel comes off?

Don't panic. Switch on your hazard lights to alert other road users. Focus on steering the car to safety with smooth steering even if you're pushed off course.

Check the wheel to see whether you can find the wheel nuts and whether there is any damage on the wheel studs.

3 Engine seized

Modern cars require sufficient oil to lubricate and cool the engine during operation and you flirt with disaster if you allow oil levels to drop or you don't change your girtty, old oil.

If oil levels drop to critical levels and you keep driving, you will hear a loud knocking sound that will indicate your engine is in trouble.

In extreme cases, the piston can break through the engine block and become a dangerously hot metal projectile.

A seized engine is often the result of oil pressure, so regularly checking oil levels is a key preventative measure you can take.

Check the oil in your engine regularly. It should be brown, but not black or sticky. (Duncan Alfreds, Wheels24)

A failed oil pump can also cause an engine to seize, so ensure that your car is serviced regularly.

Don't confuse a seized engine with a hydrolocked engine where water has managed to enter the engine - possibly after driving through a big puddle.

What can you do if the engine seizes while driving?

Allow your car to coast to a stop along the side of the road. Switch on hazard lights and call your road-side assistance provider for a tow truck. Get comfy, make sure the doors are locked.

4 Brake failure

Nothing can fill you with as much fear as when you're cruising along SA's roads, put your foot on the brake to avoid a road hazard (a vehicle ahead)... and nothing happens.

Brakes can fail in the hydraulic or mechanical system.

Hydraulic failure can include a failure in the brake master or slave cylinder, which can cause a brake "fade" - a condition where the brake pedal feels soft and it takes longer than normal to bring the car to a safe stop.

While brakes rarely fail because they're critical components, ensure proper fitment and check them before long trips. (Duncan Alfreds, Wheels24)

A mechanical failure is usually the result of misaligned, faulty or worn brake pads, faulty installation of brake pads, or a lubricant such as oil on the brake disc.

You might hear a grinding noise when you put your foot on the brake and the car might in some case pull to the left or right.

What can you do?

On a level road, immediately pull to the side and inspect the brakes for damage.

Check the brake reservoir to see if it has brake fluid. A low fluid level could be an indicator of a cylinder failure. While it is possible to proceed slowly even with a cylinder failure, be aware that your braking will be seriously compromised.

The best idea to stay safe is to call for help.

5 Windscreen smashed

Okay, so this problem cannot be blamed on your car or maintenance but you could be victim of an errant stone thrown by a vehicle ahead. With enough force a stone can crack or even shatter your windscreen.

Luckily, car windscreens are made from safety glass but an instant spider web could shock you as it dramatically reduces visibility of the road ahead.

What can you do?

Don't panic and hit the brakes. Switch on your hazard lights and gently pull off the road.

Test the window for integrity by tapping it with your phone/tools (protection for your hand).

If the glass feels stable, you can drive very slowly to a service provider to have your windscreen replaced.

Most insurance companies offer low excess plans for windscreen replacement.

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