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Retrospective Analysis of my Car Breakdown

When I make it through something dangerous or unexpected, I find that I often look back on it some time later to understand just how risky the situation was. This post involves me trying to work through that and come to some conclusion on how close to disaster I came to. It goes over specific details to get out all the relevant information.

On my trip to the Secular Student Alliance Conference in Columbus, Ohio, I did most of it in one 8-hour, non-stop drive. I was actually going to Dayton first to pick up my girlfriend. I turned my engine off briefly while picking her up, then drove about a mile before I noticed my battery light on. Then I noticed my steering was especially difficult. I pulled off at a gas station to assess the situation and fill up after the long drive that day.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events here, but I called my dad for some advice, during which he mentioned and I discovered the broken serpentine belt under the hood. I didn’t know completely what this belt controlled, so I ran my engine for a few minutes, idling, under the idea that the alternator would recharge the battery. (This belt controls not only power steering, but also coolant and the alternator, so I was hurting rather than helping.)

I turned off the radio and air conditioning (even though I know now that turning on the heat might have helped diffuse it from the engine). I also recalled hearing squeaking in the weeks before (probably while my dad was helping me change brake pads), indicating a weakening belt. I believe the belts were the same ones from when my parents bought the car in 2006.

I called an auto service place found via Google, and the man who answered was extremely helpful in suggesting a different place closer to me that was more of a straight drive (because driving without power steering makes turning difficult). The distance turned out to be about 3 miles (checked on Google maps), which we made with light traffic at low speeds in maybe 15 minutes.

I wasn’t watching my temperature gauge at the time, which I didn’t think of but was very dangerous. The check engine light turned on when we were approaching the service center, which I would guess was indicating that the engine was very, very hot. I didn’t think it was a new problem, but just another indication of the same one.

After an hour of them working on it, the mechanic told me about my coolant splashing, probably boiling. He was running my engine for a while to ensure that it wasn’t going to seize. He also convinced me to change 2 of my tires.

So after all this, we drove to Columbus, had a great weekend, and made it back to Dayton and I eventually to Atlanta with no issues. I’m honestly not sure which parts of my description here are relevant to the breakdown and risk, but I decided to include it all anyway.

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I’ve been searching and reading forums extensively for data points on what people believe are reasonable to risky distances and times to run a car engine without coolant. Answers vary significantly, but I started to get a sense of how much the outside temperature, driving speed, battery life, and other factors play into the situation. There were stories about people who drove dozens of miles, maybe not even stopping to let the engine cool off. There were cautious people saying no more than a minute is safe. Not everyone named a particular type of car.

My estimate is that the former situations were lucky exceptions: one story in particular was in winter, for example. The super cautious responses were likely talking the context of car enthusiasts wanting to maintain their expensive and valuable parts. Overall I felt like what I did was within the realm of reasonable possibility, but still significantly risky. The engine light coming on towards the end is an indicator that I pushed the limit.

I also chatted with my coworkers about this the first day I came back. They clued me in to some of the dangers I didn’t consider over the weekend. One said that I would have started to see steam when engine temperature got severe, maybe before. I would hope I would have stopped then.

This is absolutely an open question that I would greatly appreciate more feedback about, as well.

When I think about why I’m writing and thinking about this, I find that I want to see how severe the situation could have been in order to know how mad at myself I should feel.

  • Not addressing the squeaking belt earlier: stupid
  • Driving the car for 8 hours without stopping: unwise
  • Not watching the temperature gauge/ignoring the check engine light: supremely idiotic

What if the service center was another mile? Or it was hotter outside that day? What if the belt broke on the highway between cities?

I want to know how lucky I was because it would serve as a more stark reminder of how harmful some of my choices or ignorance could have been. It can be a stronger motivator to learn from my mistakes, even if nothing horrible came from them this time.

I write this to somehow signify a new person emerging from the repair: someone who is more knowledgeable and will not put himself in this situation again. Someone who will respond more properly when a breakdown occurs. Someone who, after thinking about it long enough, will learn and know as much about his vehicle as he does his computer.

I welcome comments, suggestions, analysis, and advice.

(As a humorous post-script, I brought the broken belt with me when we arrived to greet our friends as an icebreaker and prop for explaining why we were late.)

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