Dear Tom and Ray: I recently purchased a 1995 Ford Contour with traction control. On the dash it has a push button switch to turn off the traction control. Nowhere in the operating instructions does it state when it's appropriate to turn off the traction control. Since the traction control is automatic, it operates only when needed. So why would you want to turn it off?
Ray: Excellent question, Ken. Traction control is a nice, new feature that uses the anti-lock brake sensors at the wheels to determine if a wheel is slipping. If it detects that one wheel is going faster than the others, it applies the brakes to that wheel until it regains traction. That helps keep the car from slipping around in the rain and snow.
Tom: And the only reason you might turn it off is when it's working too effectively. For example, let's say you're parked on top of a pile of snow. You step on the gas and the wheels start to turn, but they can't get much traction in the snow. The traction control does what it's supposed to do; it uses the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. The problem is, now you can't get out of the parking space.
Ray: And in that case, you really do want the wheels to spin. So you'd turn the traction control off and start moving back and forth, back and forth . . . letting the friction from the spinning wheels melt the snow as you move a little farther forward and a little farther backward each time.
Tom: You'll eventually burn out the clutch. And end up with your wheels a foot deep in snow.
Ray: Actually, there are times when you can successfully "blow out" of a snowbank by letting the wheels spin a bit. You just have to know when to give up and get some help.
Tom: But other than that sort of rare situation, Ken, just leave the traction control on and forget about it. It should serve you 99.99 percent of the time.
Can't stand the humidity
Dear Tom and Ray: I own a 1991 Toyota Camry that has never been any trouble until lately. Whenever the weather becomes humid, the car won't start. I first noticed the problem several months ago when I was driving and the car actually died. My impression was that if I stepped on the gas harder, it died more quickly. Eventually, the car wouldn't start at all in the humid weather. The engine would crank, but it wouldn't start. In the past year, I've had a new timing belt, new spark plugs and new wires. The part about the humid air is the perplexing part.
Tom: I suppose you've already ruled out relocating to the desert Southwest, Jason.
Ray: Actually, it sounds like a classic case of a bad coil. The coil is what generates the spark. And when it fails, the spark would be interrupted and the car would hesitate and die.
Tom: And as we all remember from our high school physics, water conducts electricity. So moisture in the air is likely to "steal" some of the electricity that would normally go to the spark plugs. And that's why it's worse when it's wet out. Eventually, it'll get so bad that you won't be able to start it, even on dry, sunny days.
Ray: The best solution is to replace the whole distributor, which includes the coil, igniter, cap, pickup, rotor and plug wires. It's expensive (around $500 with labor), but, as you say, this car has never been any trouble. So just consider yourself due.
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