ARE GAS-ELECTRIC HYBRIDS
DANGEROUS TO TOW?
I am an environmental regulator who lives and works in a semi-rural area in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. I have been really interested in getting one of the hybrid gas-electric Ford Escapes that are supposed to come out next year. Some other people I work with are in the same boat. We are all attracted to the idea of a rugged vehicle with enough ground clearance to handle local gravel roads, and that still gets really good gas mileage and has low emissions. But I heard somebody say that nobody wants to tow hybrid vehicles that have been in a crash or have broken down. Is this true? Are tow-truck drivers actually having problems with hydrogen emissions? Sparks? Shorts? -- Tom
RAY: Well, my brother has had problems with shorts. But it's usually after I give him an atomic wedgie.
TOM: The answer to your question is, we don't really know. There is obviously some danger. Gasoline-powered cars can be dangerous when they crash. And hybrids have both a gasoline engine AND a high-voltage electric motor.
RAY: But from what we've been able to learn, and from what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells us, the danger appears to be minimal.
RAY: For example, the Toyota Prius has a 274-volt electric motor in addition to a small gasoline engine. But in order to get a shock from the electric motor, you'd have to strip the casing off of both the positive and the negative wires and touch both of them at the same time. And since they run through an enclosed tunnel in the center of the car's floor and are both encased in bright orange, that's not something an emergency worker is going to do by accident.
TOM: And if the accident were severe enough to expose those wires, what are the chances that the electric motor would still be in a condition to be "on" and working? Probably low. So electrocution seems to be an unlikely scenario.
RAY: The other reason the wires are buried in a tunnel in the floor is so that if someone were using a Jaws of Life on a door or on the roof, he or she would be nowhere near any live wires.
TOM: As far as towing, there's really no danger at all to road-service folks. In the case of the Prius, the instructions for towing are the same as for any other front-wheel-drive car. And I suspect that will be true of the Ford Escape hybrid -- the same as for all-wheel-drive vehicles, in that case.
RAY: Jump-starting also poses no additional risks, as far as we know -- unless you count having a burly tow-truck driver snicker at you for being a Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugger. The Prius has a separate, standard 12-volt car battery that's used to start the gasoline engine, and that's the one you'd use to get a jump-start. Road-service folks would have no contact with the larger battery pack at all.
TOM: We know that Toyota makes these details available to emergency-response workers, and I'm sure Ford will, too. Chances are, there will be some folks who are nervous about working with these vehicles, but it'll probably be due more to unfamiliarity than to real danger.
RAY: But it's a good question, Tom. And if we hear of any problems that DO come up, we'll certainly let everybody know.
IS HER WATER PUMP REALLY WORN OUT?
I am 87 years old. I need to use my car every day to visit my husband at the nursing home. I know nothing about cars. My dealer takes pretty good care of me, because he knows my situation. He said I need to have my water pump replaced. He said this the last time I was in, and he said "sometime in the next six months." How can I know if I really need a new water pump? I have a 1996 Toyota Camry with less than 30,000 miles. It is silver, since I know you guys ask the color of people's cars to stall for time. What symptoms should I have if I truly need a water pump, or is it one of those maintenance things I should do before I get symptoms? -- Carmella
RAY: Well, you probably wouldn't notice the symptoms of a bad water pump, Carmella. There might be a humming noise or a slight leak, but it's not easy for the average person to detect.
TOM: The question is whether your mechanic has noticed that something's wrong, or whether he's just basing his recommendation on the age of your car -- which is 6 years.
RAY: So if I were you, I would just ask him about it again. You seem to have a decent relationship with the guy. Pretend you're old and you don't remember. If you need any tips on acting the part, ask my brother.
TOM: Ask your mechanic to tell you again why he thinks you need a new water pump. If he says he noticed that it was noisy, or was leaking coolant from the weep hole, then, since you trust him, I'd take his word for it and let him change it.
RAY: But if he says "It's just time," or something that implies that he's doing it based on a calendar, I'd tell him you'd rather wait. Even though your car is 6 years old, it only has 30,000 miles on it. And personally, I've never seen a Toyota water pump go bad at 30,000 miles. We routinely change them at 120,000 miles.
TOM: So, based on our experience, your water pump might not need to be replaced until 2020, Carmella. Bring it to us then. We'll do it for free, and we'll buy you a coffee!
FOR PETE'S SAKE,
SECURE YOUR WEIGHTS
I want to comment on a column you recently wrote about putting sandbags in the back of a pickup truck. Where I live in upstate New York, I've seen sandbags added to the beds of pickup trucks in winter -- as well as cast iron, concrete blocks and other creative alternatives. Please remind your faithful followers that any such weights should be secured to the bed of the truck -- and by something more substantial than a bungee cord. In the event of an accident or other sudden stop, that thin piece of glass behind your head will not prevent the old anvil from joining you in the cab. The gun rack might slow it down, but not by much. -- Rick
TOM: You're absolutely right, Rick. We should have mentioned that any cargo in the bed of a pickup truck should be securely tied down. We didn't, and you were one of about 50 people who wrote to remind us (not all of them did it as politely as you did, Rick!).
RAY: Whether you use sandbags or mothers-in-law, make sure they're secured to the bed with enough rope, cable or chain to keep them securely in place if you hit something -- and that's not very easy. An even better option would be to install one of those permanent tool/cargo boxes that bolt to the bed, and then put the additional weight in there.
TOM: And if you think we're just being overly cautious, here's another reader's letter that might help convince you otherwise.
Got a question about cars? Write to Click and Clack in care of this newspaper, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk section of cars.com on the World Wide Web.