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10 Driving Basics You May Be Embarrassed to Ask About

10 driving basics you may be embarrassed to ask about header

By Andy Jensen on June 23, 2021 in Life Hacks

You may have a stellar driving record and change your own oil. You could love being behind the wheel, chasing thousands of miles on a road trip in your well-maintained vehicle. Then the low-gas warning light turns on, and you aren’t sure how far you can drive. Even if you took driver’s education and read the driver’s manual, you probably have questions about operating your vehicle. Don’t worry, we’re here to help with your driving mysteries.

How to Lifehack Your Car

Read on to learn about 10 often-misunderstood driving subjects, and discover tips to improve how you maintain and drive your vehicle.

1. Defog the windshield

After cleaning the frost or snow off your windshield, you may struggle with fog on the inside of the glass. Fog buildup happens because warm air has more moisture than cold air. When the warmer moist air in the cabin contacts the freezing windshield, it forms on the surface as tiny droplets or fog. Your best bet is to use the defrost setting to push heat on the glass to warm it up. Alternatively, use the air conditioner to blow outside (yes, cold!) air onto the windshield. Cooler air lowers the humidity and temperature difference and clears the windshield. Pro tip: Prevent fog buildup by using a window cleaning spray with glycerin. Too lazy for deep cleaning? Place a silica gel dehumidifier on the dash to pull cabin moisture away from the glass. You can buy both products at an auto-parts store.

2. Clean the gross film off windows

Even worse than temporary fog is a seemingly permanent haze with no apparent cause that sometimes affects windshields. The smoky, oily-looking film builds up on the inside of windows and makes driving at night dangerous because it prevents defogging methods from working. The reasons behind the haze vary. If you aren’t a smoker and usually notice it after a hot day, then the haze is most likely from the cabin materials off-gassing. Yup, the same stuff that causes toxic “new car smell” leaves a gross film on your windows. A dedicated glass cleaner will cut through the grime, but surprisingly so will old fashioned black-and-white newsprint. Note that if the windshield haze is tinted green, your car’s heater core may be leaking. Ask your mechanic to investigate.

3. Get heat out of a car quickly

Let’s say you couldn’t find a parking spot in the shade and now your car’s interior is hotter than the surface of the sun. You could get in and wait for the air conditioner to start working, but it may feel like it takes forever to cool down. Fortunately, Japanese drivers have a solution. Open the driver’s door and power on the vehicle’s accessories. Lower the passenger side rear window, and then open and close the driver’s door five times at a normal speed. The opening door sucks cooler outside air through the opposite window, quickly lowering the vehicle’s interior to a more reasonable temperature. The result is a 15 degree drop in temperature in only a few seconds. Afterward, close the windows and blast the air conditioner!

4. Understand types of gas

Here’s the dirty secret about gas: Premium isn’t anything special. Gasoline grades vary by the state or region, but generally regular gas is 87 octane and mid-grade is 89 octane. Premium gas is 90 to 94 octane. A higher octane number doesn’t mean more horsepower or improved fuel economy; instead, it’s a complex chemical formula that represents a fuel’s stability. The higher the octane, the more the fuel resists early combustion. Your owner’s manual will state which octane your vehicle needs, and it may also be on the gas cap or inside the fuel door.

If you put premium gas in a car that only needs regular, you’ve wasted a few dollars. Fire up and get back on the road, and you won’t notice a difference. Save some cash and buy regular gas next time.

If you put regular gas in a vehicle that needs premium, the computer will pull ignition timing to prevent damage to the engine. Your vehicle will run a bit slower while you burn this tank, and you should go easy on the gas pedal. Be sure to use premium next time.

If you put gas in a diesel vehicle or diesel in a gas tank, don’t start the engine. Call a tow truck, get it to a mechanic, and get the tank drained.

5. Know how far you can drive on empty

Sure, you know you should get gas when the low-fuel light comes on, but what if you can’t? If no stations are nearby, you may have more miles than you think left in your tank. The low-fuel warning light turns on when the fuel-pump sensing unit inside the gas tank detects a lack of fuel. It warns you when the tank is about 50 miles from being empty. The actual reserve range varies by vehicle. For example, estimates a Chevy Silverado has 25 miles left when the fuel light comes on, whereas a Nissan Altima may make it more than 100 miles. While it’s good to have this useful information, try to fill up before the tank dips below a quarter full. Gasoline acts as a coolant in the tank, so driving with low fuel causes excess heat and premature wear on the fuel pump.

6. Understand why tire pressure varies

Seventh-grade science told us colder air is denser air. While some of us assumed we’d never use that tidbit, we depend on this science every time we drive. Let’s say you check the air pressure in your tires on a warm October day, then the low-tire-pressure light illuminates with the first cold snap in November. Since tire pressure decreases 1 pound per square inch for every 10 degrees of temperature drop, a quick swing in fall temperatures could set off the low-pressure light even if the tire doesn’t leak. Some tire pressure monitoring systems only need to measure a 10 percent difference from ideal pressure to trigger the warning light. Best bet: When you see a temperature dive in the forecast, expect to add a few pounds of air to your tires. Grab a cheap portable tire inflator to stow under the seat to make the task quick and simple. Note that if the tire light flashes (instead of staying on), it indicates an issue with the tire pressure monitoring system, not the tire pressure. Head to a tire shop and ask the attendant to look at the pressure sensors.

7. Use cruise control safely

We aren’t going to tell you how to activate your cruise control. That procedure varies by the vehicle, and it’s probably second nature for you. Instead, we’ll explain when not to use cruise control. First of all, don’t turn it on in bad weather, such as fog or rain showers, or when you’re driving on a snow-covered highway. Also, rather than deactivating cruise control by stepping on the brakes, pro truck drivers turn the system off. This technique provides more stability on slick roads and prevents vehicles behind you from needing to brake. In addition, don’t use cruise control in construction zones, school zones, or urban areas. Also avoid using it in heavy traffic, because the flow of vehicles could gridlock faster than you can disable the system. Even with our modern autonomous cruise control systems, pay attention to what your vehicle is doing, and be ready to take control as needed. Best bet: Use your cruise control during nice weather in light highway traffic.

8. Learn downshifting basics

Modern vehicles get smarter every year. Transmission computers quickly adapt to driving conditions. While you can leave the transmission in drive for the vast majority of your driving, sometimes you will benefit from manually selecting a lower gear.

For example, if you stop at a stoplight on a slick, icy road, shift to first (1) or low (L) gear. When the light turns green, the transmission will use the lowest (and slowest) gear for maximum torque multiplication. Shift back to drive (D) as you leave the intersection.

You can also downshift during a steep hill, as long as you’re not traveling at highway speeds. If you’re on a road with a 7 percent grade going 25 miles per hour or less, it’s the perfect time to downshift to second gear. You’ll use the transmission’s slower gear ratios to slow the vehicle. By downshifting, you avoid constant brake use during a downhill drive, which could overheat the brakes. Remember that it’s cheaper to replace brake pads than a transmission, so primarily rely on your brakes for braking and supplement with downshifting only when needed.

9. Know the difference between AWD and 4WD

All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) seem like the same thing. If a vehicle drives all four wheels, then it is AWD and 4WD, right? Not quite. The big difference between AWD and 4WD is how often you use them. You can use AWD all the time, but you should only use 4WD when needed.

All-wheel drive cars such as the Subaru Forrester and Audi A6 let you forget about the system and drive as you normally would. The AWD system adapts to road conditions and automatically applies power to the wheels with the most grip for stable and confident on-road driving.

Four-wheel drive is a lower speed option available for the nastiest road conditions, such as deep snow or sand, neglected gravel roads, or serious off-roading. Use the 4High selection for highway speeds below 55 miles per hour (for example while traveling a country road in the snow). The 4Low option is also called a crawl gear. It’s great for slow speed traction in brutal conditions, for instance when fording a stream or climbing out of a muddy ravine. Keep vehicle speed in 4Low below 15 miles per hour.

10. Decode the Check Engine Light

Uh-oh. A dash warning light came on, and you don’t know why. You could take your car to a mechanic and ask them to perform a diagnostic. However, they may upsell you on various services you don’t need. Instead, you can buy an OBDII code reader. These little devices plug into your car, scan the car’s computer, and display information on what it says is wrong. The cheapest code readers go for $10 to $30. They don’t have a display screen and instead link your car to your phone via Bluetooth. Instead of going to a mechanic and saying, “I don’t know. Something is wrong,” you can show the mechanic the diagnostic screenshot and say “I have a code P0352 for a failing coil pack.” You’ll save your mechanic time, and you may save yourself some cash.


You don’t have to put up with annoying windshield fog or a mysterious warning light. Use these tips and tricks to enjoy miles of trouble-free cruising.

Andy Jensen is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an automotive enthusiast writer specializing in new and used models, industry tech and trends, and the car culture that surrounds it all. After receiving a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma, he decided to write about cars instead of getting a real job. He’s written for Jaguar, Volvo, Ford, Advance Auto Parts, Haynes Manuals, and others. His project car probably isn’t running.