Road block: You’re involved in a fender bender. What’s the first thing you should do?
Best route: If someone has been injured, call the police, as it's a crime to leave any accident that results in personal injury. Should you need a tow, contact AAA if you're a member; otherwise call your insurer or the state patrol. If no one is injured, the damage is minimal, and you're not blocking traffic, you may not need to call the police―and in many municipalities, they may not respond to minor incidents anyway. Instead, collect as much information as you can: all drivers' and witnesses' names, addresses, phone numbers, insurance details, and driver's-license and license-plate numbers. It's also a good idea to take photos of the damage and any identifying features of the location.
Later, call the nonemergency number for the police department in the area where the accident happened and ask how to file an accident report. (In most states, depending on the amount of damage, you're required by law to file a report, so opting not to would be considered illegal.) You'll usually need to pick up a form, or download it from the Internet, and there will be a strict time frame for filing the paperwork, typically within 72 hours of the incident.
Road block: After an accident, the other person admits that it’s his fault. But to protect his premium, he wants to pay you directly rather than filing an insurance claim.
Best route: There's no problem legally or financially with letting him do it that way, as long as the damage is minimal and you're absolutely sure nobody is hurt, says consumer advocate Remar Sutton. But, even then, going off the books is risky.
"About 10 or 15 percent of the time, it turns into a nightmare," says Sutton. The other driver may balk when he sees your repair shop's estimate and ask you to let his place do the work, but who knows how good that shop is, how convenient it is to get to, or how fast it will complete the repair? You may also have a hard time collecting for the rental car you'll need while your car is in the shop, or for an accident-related problem, like a misalignment, that shows up only later.
The bottom line is you need to decide right at the scene whether the other person seems trustworthy, says Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. "If you're going to take the gamble, you need to say, 'We're going to play by my rules. We're going to use my body shop. I'll need a rental car. I'll need all your insurance information, and I'll be filing a police report and informing my insurance company about this incident.'"
2 of 4Alexandra Rowley
Road block: Buy or lease? You can’t decide.
Best route: Buy. Leasing may be tempting, as it means a lower monthly payment, but leases are loaded with hidden costs. Many people wind up owing thousands of dollars at the end of the lease because they've driven more miles than are included in the contract.
A typical lease charges 10 to 25 cents a mile after 12,000 to 15,000 miles for each year of the lease, but you could very well exceed that amount. "Look at the odometer of your old car and figure out how many miles you really drive each year," says consumer advocate Remar Sutton, president of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues (autoissues.org). "Then ask for a lease that includes that mileage." If the dealer won't provide that, go elsewhere.
The leasing company can also hold you responsible for vehicle damage. And "the contracts can be very vague about what sort of damage the company can charge you for," Sutton says. The company is most likely to start finding problems if the customer isn't trading in the lease for another one. "And the contracts severely limit your legal recourse if you're getting scammed," he says. Your best defense is to lease from a well-known company, regularly maintain the vehicle and keep records, and have any dents repaired and the car detailed before you return it.
Road block: You’re afraid the seller is going to take you for a ride.
Best route: Get informed.
If you're buying new, look up the car you want at a car-comparison website, like edmunds.com. Follow the instructions to a page showing the invoice price, which is what the dealer pays for the car. Be sure to click on the "incentives" link to check on any price breaks the manufacturer might give to the dealer. That way, you'll have a better idea of what the dealer really paid. At the dealership, you'll want to negotiate up from the price the dealer paid, rather than down from the sticker price.
Shop around for a car loan from local banks, national lenders (find one at bankrate.com), and credit unions, many of which are open to anyone (find one at the Credit Union National Association website, cuna.org). If the dealership offers a better rate, take it. "But having other financing in your back pocket prevents you from getting stuck with a high-rate dealer loan," Sutton says.
Look up the estimated wholesale value of your trade-in at the Kelley Blue Book website (kbb.com), or shop it around at used-car lots.
Buying a used car? You can find out a possible purchase price at kbb.com, but you'll need to enter details, including the car's condition. So first ask a mechanic to run a full diagnostic on the vehicle (cost: $80 to $140).
Finally, if you're buying from a new- or used-car dealer, "show up five minutes before closing time, at the end of a month, preferably when the weather is rotten," says Sutton. Dealers have monthly quotas to fill, and you may get the benefit of a slow sales day and a seller who wants to go home.
3 of 4Alexandra Rowley
Road block: The streets are wet, your tires lose their grip on the road, and your car starts hydroplaning, or sliding or spinning.
Best route: "The key is not to panic," says Michael Waltrip, a NASCAR driver and a two-time winner of the Daytona 500. "Because if you jam on the brakes or jerk the wheel, you can cause a bigger loss of control."
In many cases, simply letting up on the gas is all it takes to reengage the tires. If not, you may need to steer out of trouble, just as if you were sliding on ice. "If the front end is moving left, turn the wheel a bit to the right," says Chris Thomas, the chief engineer of vehicle research for Honda Research & Development Americas. "But don't overcompensate or you may start to fishtail."
The best way to avoid hydroplaning is to slow down on wet roads. "And don't use cruise control in a rainstorm," says Thomas. "If you start to hydroplane, you can't just ease off the accelerator to regain control."
Road block: You notice an aggressive driver who might cause an accident.
Best route: Dial 911 and give the operator as much identifying information as you can, such as the license-plate number, the type of car and its color, a description of the driver, and the direction of travel. The operator will alert the nearest police patrol.
Road block: A tire blows out while you're driving on the interstate.
Best route: Unless you hear the tire burst, the first sign of a blowout will be that your car suddenly pulls hard to one side. Your instinct will be to slam on the brakes, but don't. That will only exacerbate the problem, and it could cause a total loss of control. Instead, slowly lift your foot from the gas while steering with both hands to stay in your lane, says Thomas. Then, using your turn signal, maneuver one lane at a time toward the shoulder. You're better off continuing to drive, at below 30 miles an hour, with the blown tire flapping away than stopping before you're clear of the traffic. (Don't worry about damaging the tire―it's ruined.)
Road block: You get pulled over. Is there any possibility of talking your way out of a ticket?
Best route: Your best chance of avoiding a ticket is to immediately own up to that illegal U-turn. "Courtesy goes a long way," says Michael Wright, an officer with the California Highway Patrol. "If you say, 'I'm sorry. I realize I was speeding. I'm late for work and wasn't thinking,' you're going to get a lot further than if you play dumb or deny what you did."
So what shouldn't you say? Three things, says Wright, are guaranteed to put any officer in a bad mood: mentioning that your taxes pay his salary; saying, "Don't you have some real criminals to go after"; and so much as uttering the word doughnut.
4 of 4Alexandra Rowley
Road block: Your dashboard light says check engine, but how soon do you need to do so?
Best route: "If the light is flashing, which happens in most post-1996 models, driving even another block could cause expensive damage to the catalytic converter (which reduces emissions), so you need to pull over immediately and call a tow shop," says Liz Dally, a master automobile technician and the owner of the Hawthorne Auto Clinic, in Portland, Oregon.
If the light is on but not flashing, there's a chance the problem is something you can fix yourself, like a loose gas cap. Pull over as soon as it's safe and turn the cap clockwise until you hear three or four clicks. If the warning light is still on, check the manual to see if there are any other easy fixes to try, such as making sure the oil dipstick is in all the way (check the manual for the dipstick's location under the hood).
Filling the gas tank while the car is running―a bad idea―can also cause the check engine light to come on (it will shut itself off eventually). If none of this works, call for an appointment to have the engine looked over. Any professional repair shop should be able to do the job; just ask if it has a scan tool for the make of your car. The shop will need that to find out what caused the light to come on.
Road block: You’re confused by the different gases at the pump. Which should you use?
Best route: Premium gas isn't cleaner, purer, or better than regular. The difference has to do with how it combusts. "Every vehicle is engineered for gasoline with a specific octane rating," says Chris Thomas, the chief engineer of vehicle research for Honda Research & Development Americas. The recommended rating might be printed on the interior of your gas-cap door, or you can look in your owner's manual. Most vehicles take regular unleaded gas (87 octane), but heavy trucks and high-performance cars often require higher-octane fuel (typically 91) because their engines have been tuned for extra horsepower. You'll get no benefit from using a higher-octane product than the manufacturer intended. But if your manual calls for a premium grade, using something with a lower octane rating will reduce performance and fuel economy, and can prematurely age the engine.
Road block: You need a good mechanic.
Best route: To find a reliable shop, ask friends for recommendations. Or look at the Mechanics Files at cartalk.com, an online bulletin board that dishes about particular mechanics. Check that anyone you're considering has been certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), or that the shop is an AAA-approved repair facility. Ask questions or look for the certificates on the shop wall. The ASE also awards Blue Seal honors to outstanding repair shops. For a list of those near you, go to aseblueseal.org.