In the course of a single year, I drive about 30,000 miles all over America. In Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, where Ford F150s, Chevy Impalas, and Pontiac Grand Ams rule the roads, my 2009 BMW 335i and I are often hundreds of miles from the nearest BMW dealer—or even anyone who would know what to do with a German vehicle, let alone have parts available should something go awry.
Over the past 20 years and nearly a million miles, I’ve been remarkably fortunate with the dozen different cars I’ve owned, thanks to religious maintenance and rigorous pre-trip mechanical checks. Only twice have I been completely stranded, enough that I had to call a tow truck and wait overnight for parts to come in. The second time was in early September in southern Oregon, when my husband and I were traveling on I-5 from Seattle to San Francisco during a much-anticipated vacation.
In spite of having replaced the electric water pump and thermostat (infamous for failing on this year and model) just 40,000 miles ago as a precautionary measure shortly after I acquired the car in 2012, it suddenly failed on this trip. No drama, no fuss—just a single genteel chime when the overheating symbol came on at 70 mph. Immediately I switched on the hazard flashers, guided the car smoothly across two lanes to a gentle stop on the right shoulder, and shut off the engine. As my husband opened the hood, telltale white steam poured forth and the car spat out coolant onto the pavement. Not much to do but get back in the car and call for help.
As it happened, we were in a less than ideal spot. The highway was starting to curve uphill, and the lanes had significantly narrowed because of the mountainous terrain and the fact that a concrete Jersey barrier divided the roadway in the middle. We still had a shoulder, but it itself was bordered by a 3-foot-high concrete retaining wall on our right, so very little clearance remained between the driver’s side of the car and traffic.
Looking in my rearview mirror, I was quickly alarmed by the target fixation by other drivers who were looking at us but not adjusting their steering. (After all, you will always go where your eyes are looking.) Even with our hood up and flashers on, passenger cars, RVs, and 13-wheeler semis alike were not only not moving over to the left to give us room, but they were actively drifting into our curve and crossing the white shoulder line—barreling directly toward us—before correcting at the last moment and pulling away with maybe 12 feet to spare at 70 mph. Just a bit unnerving.
Being stranded on the roadside can be very dangerous in itself for these very reasons. Given our vulnerability, my husband and I put our seatbelts on, just in case we should get hit—then at least we wouldn’t go flying out the windshield. I called AAA, and we were told a tow truck would be on its way in about 45 minutes to take us to a nearby repair shop experienced in European cars. I breathed a sigh of relief—this was a good stroke of luck out in the middle of nowhere. But as we waited and continued to watch traffic drifting and whizzing past way too close, we decided to get out of the car altogether and hop behind the retainer wall, where we could stand safely some distance from the roadway until help arrived.
According to author Walt Brinker, there are two classes of drivers: One who has experienced a disabled vehicle, and those who will. And he should know—he has provided over 2,000 road assists free of charge near his home in North Carolina. For this retired Army lieutenant colonel and good Samaritan, helping people stranded on the road is both a passion and unique hobby. After observing how many people were needlessly stuck because of improper vehicle maintenance and not having the right items and tools in their vehicles to deal with emergencies, Brinker decided to write Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns to help empower drivers.
I’m normally not a big fan of these kinds of books because frankly, many of them are quite poorly written or contain rather vague content that’s not all that helpful. But this little book is different. In fact, reading it makes me realize what I’m lacking in my own car in the way of tools and supplies, in spite of everything I do carry for emergencies.
Brinker’s book is a scant 110 pages, but a huge amount of excellent information is packed into its small size. Much of it is predictably related to tire issues, but he also addresses what to do if you’ve run out of gas, your engine overheats, you’re locked out of your vehicle, or your engine has cut off and will not restart. He also suggests a list of items to carry in your vehicle to contend with vehicle breakdowns. His mantra, of course, is to be proactive about vehicle maintenance so that you are less likely to be stranded in the first place. He also strongly advises that you practice things like changing a tire in the safety and comfort of your own driveway so that you are not struggling to learn when you’re stuck on the side of a road at night or in adverse conditions.
What I like best about this book is Brinker’s common-sense approach to roadside fixes. This is not a dry, technical fix-it manual, but a succinct, engaging book written in plain language that anyone can understand, with solutions that even people with no mechanical experience can easily follow. And he is extremely specific and surprisingly thorough.
Many times I came across bits of advice that floored me with why-didn’t-I-think-of-that solutions. For instance, a vehicle jack works fine on hard, level ground, but it quickly becomes useless if the soil is sandy, mushy, or uneven. His suggestion? Carry a 8-by-8-inch, ½-inch-thick square of plywood to place under the jack to stabilize it and keep it from sinking into soft ground. Another issue that can make changing tires difficult is not enough leverage to loosen really tight lug nuts; he recommends using a “cheater bar”—a simple 2-foot-long steel pipe that can be slipped over the handle of your vehicle’s lug wrench to double or even triple the available torque.
He tackles vehicle-specific issues as well, such as fuel pump cutoff switches in Ford vehicles and the tendency of pre-2007 General Motors vehicles to have looser battery connectors than normal. He gives tips on changing tires with aftermarket rims, how to get rims and wheels separated when they are stuck together by rust, how to use a paper clip to fix loose battery clamps, why 20-foot jumper cables make for safer vehicle starts versus shorter ones, what to do if your car doesn’t start even though you just poured a gallon of gas in the tank, and ingenious solutions for vehicle lockouts. Sprinkled throughout the book are photos that illustrate specific tools and techniques, as well as entertaining stories of Brinker’s more memorable roadside assists.
Needless to say, this is a book that should be kept in your car’s glovebox, not at home. It’s a must-read for all drivers, novice and experienced alike, and great for new teen drivers, significant others, family, and friends. Even if you have AAA or access to other roadside assistance programs, Walt points out that you may find yourself in situations where you have no phone or satellite reception, the wait is too long or towing services are closed for the night, or the help that does arrive turns out to be incompetent or unable to assist (and I’ve actually experienced all of these things myself).
And for best results, read this book before you get stranded…
In our case, there really wasn’t any way to prevent the sudden water pump failure, outside of carrying our own spare pump and mechanic. And while some of you reading this may have vehicles that demand diagnostic computers, highly specialized parts, and especially trained technicians to fix the simplest of issues, I know there are plenty among you who could benefit from reading this little book nonetheless and being better prepared for the unexpected.
Roadside Survival retails for a mere $14.95, and it may just be some of the best money you could ever spend on your car. It also makes a great holiday gift for your new teen driver, spouse, parents, and friends—in short, anyone whose safety you care about.
Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns
Walt Brinker, 2014, CreateSpace