COVID-19: Commonly asked car questions

Hand cleaning a car's steering wheel with wipes

Nick Platt and Tim Nicholson

Posted April 27, 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. 

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. 

Black car parked on road near building

Taking your car for regular short drives will help keep it in top condition.

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.  

Can I still get my car serviced in lockdown?

If you are outside the greater Melbourne area, the answer is yes. However if you live in greater Melbourne, you may take your car to the mechanic only for “essential and critical vehicle repair, servicing and maintenance”, or for urgent recalls. This does not include routine servicing, even if your car’s computer system is telling you it’s due for a checkup. 

In most cases a few weeks’ delay in a routine service will not have a detrimental effect on a vehicle. If your car is still in the warranty period, it’s worth checking with the manufacturer/dealer to make sure the delay will not affect the warranty.