No simple matter to “check engine”

Do we really need a dashboard light that says “check engine”? What’s the point of this illuminated warning, and how did we get by without it for so many years?

It’s quite alarming when it first goes off, particularly if you’ve never had a car with a “check engine” light. The first instinct is to slam on the brakes, pull over to the side of the road, jump out and run like crazy before the jalopy explodes. But when you seen no steam, smell no burning rubber, and note no liquids spewing onto the roadway, you start to wonder what the problem might be.

The owner’s manual won’t tell you, but it does alleviate your fear. The manual suggests it’s no big deal, and you can wait until your next regularly scheduled service date to have it dealt with. Fine, but who schedules regular service dates? Most of us figure that if the car starts and keeps running until we turn it off, it’s OK. No need to pay a mechanic to tell us that.

But the “check engine” light is psychologically troubling and harder to shake than a rabid pitbull. Once it comes on it stays on, suggesting you’re a lousy, uncaring car owner if you don’t do something about it soon. What if some other person drives your car and sees the “check engine” light? That person will think you’re careless, the kind of person who forgets about the kids at daycare until it’s time to tuck them in at night and the beds are empty. Soon the whole neighborhood will be talking about your irresponsible lifestyle.

Finally, I broke down and drove the car to the mechanic who billed me $40 and said the “check engine” light came on because the gas cap was not properly screwed on. What? I don’t know how to screw on a gas cap? And I thought I’d been doing it so well all these years.

A year later the “check engine” light came on again. This time I wouldn’t be made a fool of. I checked the gas cap, checked the oil, checked the coolant, checked the transmission fluid, checked the cables and hoses, and all was fine. I turned on the car and expected to see the “thanks for checking engine” light come on, but there is no such light. The “check engine” light remained. It started to haunt me, I’d see “check engine” on my computer at work and on the refrigerator door at home. I had no idea how else to check the engine. Was I supposed to take the cylinder head off and see if the pistons were working OK? I didn’t know how to do that, and besides I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work. Only a trained mechanic is capable of satisfying the electronic brain behind the “check engine” light.

This time I took the car to a different mechanic so I wouldn’t risk being made a double fool of. After a few diagnostic tests, the new mechanic told me my gas cap was too loose. For another $40, the “check engine” light went out. How could I be such an idiot, I wondered, finally putting the blame on an imagined conspiracy between car manufacturers and mechanics to rip of the public with the ol’ loose gas cap ploy.

Another year passed and the “check engine” light is on again. My gas cap is so tight I’ll never get it off. The car sounds good, I’ve checked everything again, even the oil filter and air filter. Still, the light bothers me and there’s no way I can make it go out. I can’t take it to any mechanic on the island, because I’m no doubt the laughingstock of every lunchroom. “The $40 baby,” they probably call me.

There’s only alternative left. Anybody want to buy a fine-running car with its “check engine” light permanently illuminated?

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