When you think of “severe” driving it is usually the type of trips taken in the extreme cold during the dead of winter or the intense heat at the height of summer. Severe driving can be more than the weather conditions, however.
It can include heavy loads that include the hauling of cargo, a full vehicle of passengers or towing a trailer. Severe driving can also include travel on rough or mountainous roads or through dusty or salty environments, as well as the aforementioned extreme hot or cold weather or in extremely humid conditions. In addition, it can include driving on rough and muddy roads, as well as areas where other corrosive materials are present on the road.
It should come as no surprise that these conditions or situations would be rightfully considered “severe” driving.
Most driving could be considered severe.
However, most new car service manuals suggest that severe driving can even include what many of us might consider “normal” driving, such as stop-and-go traffic and short commutes. Extended periods of idling or low-speed operation is actually severe, as well. Surprisingly, frequent trips of less than 4 miles (6 km) are considered “severe.” In other words, that trip to the grocery store — at least if done regularly — isn’t actually normal driving; it is “severe” driving on a regular basis.
This is because, under these conditions, the engine does not warm up completely. That can result in moisture accumulation in the crankcase, and every time the engine is then started, the oil can be contaminated. Unless the vehicle is used for extended highway travel those contaminants could remain in the oil.
“According to definition, most driving is going to be considered ‘severe,’” said Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council, via a press statement. “However, there are easy steps you can take to limit the amount of wear and tear on your vehicle and improve fuel economy. By properly maintaining and repairing your vehicle, it will perform safely, dependably and efficiently for years to come, no matter the driving conditions.”
Understanding Severe Driving
As noted by White’s statement, the driving most of us do each day could fall under the definition of “severe,” but one thing to understand is there can also be degrees of this severity.
“The exact definition of severe driving service varies with the automaker, but it usually involves ongoing operation of your car under one or more of the following conditions: primarily short trips (5 miles or less); extremely hot, cold or dusty climates; sustained stop-and-go driving; and the carrying of heavy loads or towing a trailer,” explained Michael Calkins, manager for Technical Services at AAA.
“Ultimately, the definition of ‘severe’ driving conditions is somewhat subjective,” Calkins said. “We all drive in many of the conditions listed above some of the time, but what level of frequency moves a car from ‘normal’ to ‘severe’ service?”
In many ways, automakers have actually made this question moot for most newer cars, which come with oil-life monitoring systems that automatically determine when an oil change is needed and notify the driver with an alert on the instrument panel, Calkins said.
This isn’t to say drivers should just leave their owners manual in the glove compartment. Generally, it is still important drivers understand what is in the manual and make sure the maintenance schedule for severe driving is followed, if it applies to their driving style. One key point is many manufacturers have extended service intervals as a way to make today’s vehicles as “maintenance-free” as possible, but for this reason, it is advisable preventive maintenance schedules should be followed to the letter.
“While early [oil life monitoring] systems were time and mileage based, current advanced designs analyze actual vehicle operating conditions to identify when the oil will begin to degrade,” Calkins said. “In fact, the owners and maintenance manuals for many newer cars have eliminated ‘severe’ service recommendations because the oil-life monitoring system automatically shortens the oil change interval when it detects heavy-duty operation. If you do not put many miles on your car, most automakers recommend an oil change every 12 months, even if the maintenance reminder has not come on.”
The recommendations can vary based on who is offering the advice, too.
For example, the Filter Manufacturers Council and the American Petroleum Institute both suggest for “severe” driving conditions vehicles should have the oil changed every 3,000 miles (5,000 km) and that the oil filter is replaced with every oil change. Many — but not all vehicle service manuals — offer this recommendation, as well.
The Car Care Council also has published its own recommendations that suggest motorists can reduce the effects of severe driving by following the guidelines for “severe” service in the owner’s manual; fluids including oil and filters are checked more frequently; other components such as brakes and shocks are inspected more frequently; and motorists observe speed limits.
Extreme weather can also play a factor in “severe” driving; however, in most cases, drivers need not actually prepare their vehicles for the change of seasons.
“If the owner of a modern vehicle follows the automaker’s recommended maintenance schedule there is really nothing major that needs to be done to prepare for either winter cold or summer heat,” Calkins noted. “Of course, basic checks and inspections still need to be carried out regularly, such as checking/adjusting tire pressures at least once a month, replacing wiper blades when they no longer clear the glass with a single swipe, using winter windshield washer fluid in northern climates to prevent freezing and having the car’s battery tested at least annually once it reaches three years of age.”
There are other issues that extreme heat or intense cold have on a vehicle, however. Calkins explained hot, sunny southern climates tend to be harder on vehicle finishes and interiors, causing fading and deterioration of paint, plastics, rubber parts and upholstery.
“Heat is also the No. 1 enemy of car batteries, which, on average, last around three years in southern climates versus approximately five years up north,” he added. “Of course, individual circumstances will vary. Although modern cars are much better protected against rust and corrosion than older models, northern winter climates continue to pose unique challenges in this area. Salt and de-icing chemicals can cause deterioration of metal parts, including the car body. At the same time, gravel used to improve traction on slippery roads can lead to increased rock chips in the paint, as well as windshield damage.”
As vehicles remain the second biggest investment after a house, owners can still have a major effect on how long their cars last in any given climate.
“Proper mechanical and cosmetic maintenance, including regular washing and waxing, will go a long way toward protecting a vehicle,” Calkin said. “Up north, periodic undercarriage washes throughout the winter will help remove and neutralize corrosion-causing deposits. Down south, quality window tinting can significantly reduce interior temperatures and damage to the interior caused by sunlight.”
The right maintenance and understanding of what a service manual means by “severe” driving will help ensure the vehicle remains on the road for years to come.