Tough economy could create highway hazards

Scott Palm, owner of Palms Town Pump
Scott Palm, owner of 'Palms Town Pump' in Hoyt Lakes, said customers are waiting longer between maintenance and continuing to drive older cars due to the tough economy.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Scott Palm's got his head buried in the rear wheel well of someone's car. It's up on the hydraulic lift in his service station, near the edge of the little Iron Range town of Hoyt Lakes. And the car is resisting Palm's best efforts to unbolt a piece of the disc brakes.

The problem is, like many cars Palm sees, this one's been neglected for a while.

Palms Town Pump in Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
The owner of Palms Town Pump in Hoyt Lakes, Minn. said more and more of the cars that come in to the full-service station have been neglected due to the harsh economy.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"Gentleman came in yesterday, and the brakes were making noise and the ABS light was on," Palm said. "So we took it for a drive and you could hear it making a metal to metal noise, and it needed a brake job. First time he's looked at them in 130,000 miles."

By any service schedule that's way too late. But it's not that unusual, according to Palm. His repair business sees it every time the economy tanks.

"About two or three years ago we started seeing fuel prices starting to kind of jump," Palm said. "Within the last year they really made a jump, and you'd see businesses, our business, would just taper right off. It would quiet down, oil changes would go from 3,000 miles to 6,000 to 7,000 to 8,000."

Palm said people strapped just to pay for gas or home heating don't have the money for car maintenance. A lot of his customers make daily drives to taconite mines 30, 40 or 50 miles away. And, Palm said, they're making that trip in older and older cars, and going to extreme lengths to keep the cars going.

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"I'm seeing, you know, Festivas, that have had the bottom side of the car re-welded back together again to keep them going on the road, because the guy is driving it back and forth to work and it gets 45 miles to the gallon," Palm said. "I'm seeing people going and they're getting parts from other cars, bringing them in and they want to put strut assemblies back on an old Aspire that wants to stay running back on the highway. Saving them money."

When gas prices peaked, people were parking newer trucks that got lousy mileage, and bringing old cars out of retirement.

"They're dragging these cars out of somewhere, fields," Palm said. You know, the backyards of somebody that wasn't ready to get rid of it."

Palm said he can't blame his cash strapped customers. He commutes about 50 miles each way from his home near Hibbing, driving his 15-year-old Toyota.

Stories come in from mechanics statewide according to Lance Klatt, Executive Director of the Minnesota Service Station Association.

You know people are bringing their vehicles in for routine checkups, for instance a brake job," Klatt said. "The brake job may cost a little bit more than they want the brake job to cost. They ask the employee or the service station attendant to bring the car back down and then they just drive off without getting their brakes repaired at that facility. There's a safety hazard there."

And pretty much, it's all about money. Just ask Donna Sonenstahl of Park Rapids, whose minivan is her job, transportation and kid hauler.

"We have to make do with what we can, so you do only the things that are absolutely necessary," Sonenstahl said. "Which means when something breaks down you go and get it fixed, rather than doing the upkeep which you should be doing."

Sonenstahl's worried about the finances in her family of seven, and that means she's been ignoring a bit of noise when she stops the car.

"I can hear the squeak of the brakes every once in a while, and I know I should get something done before winter but I'm afraid I do have to put if off for a little while," Sonenstahl said.

Car maintenance isn't something state officials track, but it is a concern.

"If you have a car and the brakes aren't going to work, you can't afford not to deal with that," said State Patrol spokesman, Lieutenant Mark Peterson.

Peterson said shot brakes, bald tires or burned out headlights can be an invitation for a ticket, or worse, the potential cause of an accident.

"I understand times are tough in our economy, but nonetheless, we have a responsibility to all the other vehicles on the road," Peterson said. "It's just something we have to do. If you're going to have a car, you must do that. If you can't, then I'm going to say you're going to have to find another mode of transportation."

But one thing Minnesota lacks is a state wide vehicle inspection system. The service station association would like to see cars inspected after they've passed a certain age, say five to seven years. Lance Klatt said it's something they're considering taking to legislators next year.