Fredericksburg Features

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Check engine light is no help

FEW THINGS have the power to ruin my day like a “check engine” light.

First, it seems to come on only when the car is hurtling down the road, which coincidentally is when I least want to know that there’s been a malfunction deep within the recesses of the mechanism that governs said hurtling.

Second, the check engine light is just specific enough to let you know there’s a problem with the 4,000-pound machine bearing you and your loved ones down the highway at approximately 65 mph, but not specific enough to let you know whether your life expectancy and your car’s are in immediate danger of being shortened.

Consequently, when the light comes on, I struggle with what to do. Should I pull over and risk getting creamed by some other motorist who, weighing the seriousness of his own check engine light, doesn’t realize he’s drifted onto the shoulder?

Or should I keep driving, possibly risking life and limb, until I’ve reached the safety of my mechanic’s shop? I half expect that obnoxious orange light to be the last thing I see before my car explodes in spectacular Hollywood fashion, showering malfunctioning engine parts and my charred, addled remains across the interstate.

I’d like car manufacturers to consider installing a graduated check engine light system, one that clearly communicates the degree of the emergency, maybe with messages like this:

  • Hey. How’s it going? Your hair looks great today. Listen, there’s no need to be alarmed, but when you get a sec, go ahead and check engine. Something feels out of sorts, like when you stand up too fast and you get a little light-headed. We’re sure it’s nothing, but it couldn’t hurt to have a professional check it out. Catch ya later.
  • Hey. Sorry to interrupt your conversation with the oh-so-imperious GPS lady, but you might want to check engine sometime this week, or it’s guaranteed to fail you in rush-hour traffic on I–95 when you’ve got a screaming toddler in the back seat and you’re plum out of Cheerios.
  • Hey. Check engine. And by “check engine,” we mean get out of your car NOW. Don’t bother putting it in park. Just jump out and run. Far.

When the check engine light comes on, I have an inexplicable need to pop the hood and stare thoughtfully at the engine block even though I have no idea what I’m looking at.

It would be helpful if the malfunctioning part glowed or oozed or, in some other obvious fashion, owned up to being the problem.

That way, I could pop the hood, stare thoughtfully at the engine block and declare with complete confidence, “Well, obviously the problem is with the myocardial bulbous flange. You can tell because it’s all red and infected-looking. Ew.”

Of course, even if I could identify the problem, I’d have no idea how to fix it. As far as I’m concerned, what goes on under the hood of a car is akin to Harry Potter magic. It’s no place for a muggle like me.

Thankfully, I have an amazing mechanic. For me, the most basic of needs include food, water, oxygen and Mr. Pulliam. I don’t think the man’s ever met

a flange, bulbous or otherwise, he couldn’t tame, and he’s certainly not unnerved by any check engine light.

If (God forbid) he ever retires, I will hire professional wailers, put on sackcloth and ashes and rend my garments in the street, biblical-style.

Then, I’ll pop the hood, stare thoughtfully at the engine block and blow a gasket—whatever that is.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428