Vartabedian writes The Times' weekly Your Wheels column

For many motorists, a visit to a service garage is much like a trip to the dentist. But putting off routine service is a bad habit that in some cases can cut in half the life expectancy of your car. If you’ve been neglecting such maintenance, here’s a list of things that you should check or have checked periodically--and especially before setting out on a trip. We also include items for a basic emergency kit.

1 BRAKES: Check for wear on brake pads and shoes, and examine the hydraulic system for leaks and proper fluid levels.

2 TIRES: Check tire pressure. The correct pressure is listed on the door jamb or inside the glove compartment of most cars. Inspect tires for abnormal tread wear that would indicate an alignment problem.

3 STEERING: A loose steering system caused by worn parts is a safety hazard. Vibration could be an indication of an alignment or tire- balance problem.


4 LAMPS: Look for burned-out headlamps, turn signals, back-up lights and emergency flashers. Check that all instrument lights on the dashboard are operating, and make sure that the horn works.

5 COOLING SYSTEM: Check the coolant level and, if needed, flush out the system. Fill the windshield-washer reservoir, and replace worn wiper blades.

6 FLUIDS: Make sure that the engine contains sufficient oil, and that the fluids in the transmission, differential and power-steering reservoir are at proper levels. A frequent oil change is one of the most important services you can provide for your car. Also, check for oil leaks, usually indicated by oil spots on the driveway.

7 HOSES, BELTS: Inspect all rubber lines and hoses for leaks, paying particular attention to the radiator hoses. Check the belts for wear and for proper tension. Consider replacing drive belts at 60,000 miles or every four years. Replace worn preheater hoses in the engine.


8 TUNEUP: Depending on your mileage since the last tuneup, replace the spark plugs and set the engine timing. On older cars, install new points, rotors and a condenser. Some cars also require periodic engine- valve adjustments, an important service that should not be overlooked.

9 ELECTRICAL SYSTEM: Unless you have a sealed battery, check it for correct cell fluid levels, and clean any corrosion around the battery posts. Taking a good look at the wiring inside the engine compartment is worthwhile.

10 INTERIOR CLEANING: A thorough cleaning of the interior at least once each year will mini- mize wear on vinyl and cloth upholstery. Don’t neglect the doors, the headliner or the instrument panel /dashboard.

11 EXTERIOR CLEANING: Use a good-quality cleaner, and wax the car at least once a year, preferably twice. Flush out the wheel wells and the underbody.

FUEL: Calculate your car’s fuel-consumption rate. Several times each year determine its fuel-usage figures and compare it with past performance. Major changes in fuel consumption can point up possible problems.

12 EMERGENCY KIT: Road-repair kit should include a flashlight, screwdrivers, pliers, a clean rag, a tire gauge, flares, an extra fan belt, a fire extinguisher and a blanket. You should also have a first-aid kit.