COVID-19: Commonly asked car questions

Moving Well | Nick Platt and Tim Nicholson | Posted on 27 April 2020

Your most frequently asked COVID-19 car and driving-related questions, answered.

It seems the coronavirus pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives, and the way we use our cars is no exception. In recent weeks RACV’s automotive experts have fielded numerous calls from drivers asking what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their vehicles in the current environment. Here, our resident experts Tim Nicholson and Nicholas Platt answer some of the most asked questions. 

Person wearing gloves wiping down steering wheel of car

Commonly asked COVID-19 car and driving questions

Now that I’m hardly driving my car, do I risk getting a flat battery?  

Although your car may be switched off that doesn’t mean the battery is not in use. There are electrical systems that remain active at all times while the battery is connected. Even mundane items such as a clock or the little flashing light on the security systems require electricity. Think of switching off a car as like putting it in standby mode.  

Over time all these little items will eventually drain a battery. How quickly this happens depends greatly on the age of the car and the battery. As a general rule, it’s best to take the car out for a run every two or three weeks. If your car has a newer battery, a month between drives should be fine, but a car with an older battery, let’s say three years, needs starting and running at least once a week. You don’t have to go for a long drive, a 10-minute run to the supermarket and back should suffice.  

Bear in mind also that batteries have a finite life. This is usually about three years but will vary depending on the type of car and how it’s driven. 

Will using my car only for occasional short trips cause other problems? 

A car is a machine that is designed to be used. Everything from coolant to gearbox fluid and engine oil and many other systems will benefit from periodic operation.  

Additionally, some older cars have unique problems such as fuel systems that are prone to ‘gumming up’ and have oil seals that can dry out and start to leak if left standing for long periods, although modern cars don’t really have these issues. Taking the car for a run every couple of weeks is probably enough to keep these components firing.  

All that said, a car is more than just fluids and a battery, which is why you’re better off taking it for a drive rather than just starting it on your driveway. Items such as brake rotors and pads and tyres will benefit from a drive that’s long enough to warm everything up to operating temperature. Again, a 10-minute trip to the shops to collect your groceries will be enough to give your car a workout. 

Do I need to wipe down high-contact surfaces every time we get in the car? 

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care says that in conjunction with good social-distancing and hand-hygiene practices, a regular car cleaning regime may reduce the risk of transmission without harming the car’s interior. Keep it simple with the following recommendations: 

  • Clean the car regularly using water-based detergents and warm water, or detergent wipes. Alcohol-based and harsh cleaning products should be avoided as they may damage the car interior and paintwork. 
  • Particular attention should be paid to frequently touched surfaces such as the steering wheel, gear shift, indicator arm, door handles, petrol cap and bonnet release, petrol cap and cover, infotainment touchscreen, buttons and switches. 

While it might not be feasible to wipe down the interior of your car each time you use it, the Commission says the general rules for infection prevention – social distancing and good hand hygiene –remain the top priority. 

Keep a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitiser in the car so you can use it after handling fuel pumps, tyre inflators and cash or EFTPOS terminals, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water when you get home.  

Cars lined up outside car dealership
Close up of car tail light

Is it safe to have the car serviced and, if so, what precautions should I take?

The official word from Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton is that the government doesn’t want people going out unless they have to. He says, “It’s not a case of nice to do, it’s a case of need to do”. So if you want to have some cosmetic work done on your car, hold off. But if it involves mechanical issues or a recall, it’s okay. 

If you’re using your car during the outbreak, and it’s due for a service, consider taking it in. Crucially, if your car is part of a safety recall campaign, particularly if it relates to the Takata airbag recall, you should prioritise taking it in to have the fault repaired. 

If you’ve been advised to stay at home or are required to stay at home, you must follow the public health guidelines. However, call the car company’s customer service line or the dealership direct, as they may have a contactless pick-up and drop-off service. Ford Australia has introduced such a scheme.

If you can’t take your car in at the moment, check with the manufacturer to see if they’ve extended your warranty during this period. Brands such as Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz have announced plans to do this.

Most service departments and independent repairers have introduced measures to keep everyone safe and to minimise the spread of COVID-19. These include respecting social distancing, increased cleaning and frequent sanitisation of contact surfaces, complimentary hand sanitiser, sanitisation of vehicles after the service, fitting the seats and steering wheels with covers and the use of rubber gloves when servicing vehicles. 

Call your dealer and speak to the service department and ask them exactly what they are doing to keep customers and staff safe. If you’re not happy with their response, consider waiting until things have eased unless it’s urgent or part of a recall.

Some service departments have closed temporarily because of the outbreak so you may need to travel a bit further than you usually would for a service.

And, remember, RACV members save five per cent on servicing, repairs and parts at RACV Accredited Auto Care Centres. Find your nearest.

Is it okay to go car shopping? How can I shop around safely and within the law?

As with the servicing departments, many sales showrooms remain open and dealers have introduced measures to protect staff and customers. 

Several car companies have launched online buying tools, and some are offering contactless test drives from the dealership or by bringing the car to you.

Research shows that most buyers do most of their research online these days and visit a dealership just once or twice to test a car before making their final decision. We’d recommend doing as much research as you can online to narrow down your choices before booking a test drive, to minimise your time out of the house. 

Many dealerships have added detailed videos of the vehicles they have in stock, so you can get a better look at the car without having to leave your house.

Dealer group Bayford has introduced a system that enables buyers to get a valuation for a trade-in, generate a finance score, arrange a test drive, leave a deposit and negotiate pricing all via its online portal.

Before you venture out, call the dealer or check their website to make sure they’re open and that they’ve introduced measures to keep you safe while in the dealership.