Here’s how you can try to avoid car breakdowns

Getting stuck on the side of the road is an unnecessary nuisance.

It’s one of a motorist’s nightmares: you’re on your way to work in rush-hour traffic; on your way home after a long work week or heading out on a well-deserved holiday and your car breaks down.

Is there a way to spot gremlins hiding under the bonnet before disaster strikes? Ricardo Coetzee, head of Auto & General Insurance, says: “Mechanical breakdowns can cause anything from a minor inconvenience to a major catastrophe.

“All too often, however, these breakdowns could easily have been avoided had the warning signs been spotted and addressed soon enough.”

According to the Automobile Association of South Africa, there are seven leading causes of mechanical breakdowns on South Africa’s roads:


The battery’s main function is to power the core systems that get a vehicle’s engine started, like the starter motor, fuel pump and spark plugs, as well as to power all electrical functions when the car’s engine isn’t running.

Warning signs: Powdery deposits on the battery and cables. Loose cables. Low water levels (in batteries that aren’t labelled maintenance-free).

Dim dashboard lights before the car is started.

Tip: Check the battery at least once a month for warning signs. Have it inspected and tested by a professional.


The alternator generates and relays electricity to the battery and other electrical components once the vehicle is running.

Warning signs: Battery warning light. Dim lights when the vehicle’s engine is running. A relatively new battery that loses charge even when the vehicle is driven often.

Tip: Have the alternator checked by a professional if you notice any of these symptoms.

Starter motor

The starter motor is powered by the battery and is responsible for turning the engine to a speed where it can start and run on its own.

Warning signs: The vehicle’s engine doesn’t turn, even with a full battery. Intermittent starting problems. Clicking noise coming from the starter.

Tip: If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s best to get the vehicle to a professional right away. Clutch The clutch connects and disconnects the rotational power of the engine to the wheels.

Warning signs: Difficult or noisy gear changes. Vehicle moving forward with clutch still pressed fully or almost fully in. A soft, unresponsive clutch. A burning smell.

Tips: Apply good clutch control. Avoid riding the clutch – keeping it partially depressed while driving.

Spark plugs

Spark plugs are responsible for the ignition of fuel in petrol engines.

Warning signs: Trouble starting. Rough idling. Engine misfire. Lack of power. High fuel consumption.

Tips: Ensure spark plugs are changed at the recommended service interval settings, that they are adequately fastened and that high-tension leads (cables from the distributor) are in a good condition and properly fastened.


A vehicle’s electrical system forms an interconnected network that powers anything from the windscreen wipers and electric windows to the fuel pump and safety systems.

Warning signs: Include a failure of any one, or combination of, the following critical systems: lights, the instrument panel, wipers, airbag/ABS/EBD/ESC systems.

Tips: Have routine checks performed by an auto electrician or service centre to make sure there are no errors indicated on the onboard computer.


The transmission regulates the power from the engine to the drive wheels through the use of gears.

Warning signs: Struggling to engage certain gears or keep the vehicle in a certain gear. Vehicle doesn’t move when in gear and clutch is released.

Tips: Make sure you change gears smoothly and select the right gear for the speed at which you are travelling.

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