What makes cars stop?

Cars are marvellous technologies. Given that they basically run by controlled explosions it is a wonder that they work at all. In fact they are incredibly reliable but they will still let you down from time to time.

This is something the AA knows all about of course. Given that we handle a huge volume of roadside call outs every year, we have a very good understanding about what makes cars stop.

To assess this systematically we did an analysis of over 100,000 call outs from 2012 compared to 2010. Because we do this year in year out we can build up a very accurate picture of the national car fleet. It is a fleet that is aging – nearly 80 per cent of Irish cars are now more than four years old.

That is not too alarming in itself but we also see evidence that people are skimping on regular servicing and maintenance. Of course we know why: people just don’t have the money. We see that first hand in an increase in call outs for punctures, steering, brake and suspension issues.

It is not a huge surprise to find out that the most vulnerable component is the person in the driver’s seat. Human error is the number one cause of car breakdown. The self-inflicted flat battery is still the single most common reason for calling the AA.

Batteries tend to be more reliable these days but not completely so. They will typically last about 45,000-50,000 kilometres so you are unlikely to own a car for more than a few years without having tochange it at least once.

If it does let you down the chances are that it will be during winter. The demand on the electrical system is greater, people use heaters and demisters much more often. In cold temperatures the liquids in the engine become more viscous and the battery has to work harder.

Hence we know that from now until March we will be fixing and replacing batteries constantly. This was particularly true during the big freezes of 2010.

I was a little bit baffled initially to see from the data that the number of people who put the wrong fuel in their cars is on the increase. You would be amazed just how common this mistake is. Because of the difference in nozzle size people tend to put petrol into diesel tanks rather than the other way around.

That is probably the reason why it is becoming more common. Diesel is starting to replace petrol as the fuel of choice. Where once over 90 per cent of Irish cars were petrol that figure is now under 60 per cent and dropping by the year.

In years gone by miss-fuelling meant a seriously expensive repair. It involved stripping down and washing the entire fuel system. Nowadays we have specialised equipment and AA vans that are designed to do that work on the spot.

That does not stop motorists being very embarrassed by it. Every time someone calls they feel as if they are the only idiot who could possibly make this mistake. In fact we will deal with about a hundred calls a month.

We even had a case recently where a husband and wife both called us quite separately. Both had made the same mistake and both were very anxious not to let the other one find out what they had done.

We even had one individual – I won’t name him because he is well known – who has called us after mis-fuelling the car on five separate occasions.

You may feel uniquely inept if you lock your keys inside the car but again you can believe me when I tell you that you are not alone. We will get 2,000 of these cases in a normal year.

It can happen very simply but at least a couple of times per month we will get cases where a small child or even a dog playing with the key-fob will manage to hit a button and clunk the doors closed, sending parents into a panic.

I would imagine that these types of problems will keep happening as long as we rely on the most unreliable component of all – a human being.


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