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Are you a severe driver?

This might be one of the top questions quick lube techs should ask their customers. Shops take great care to go through a customer service script with drivers, explaining why each service is important and often noting the manufacturer-recommended intervals for each service.

Customers might think that they don’t drive with the pedal to the floor, so they can hold off a while longer on some of those routine maintenance items. One AAA poll found that 6 percent of motorists perceive their driving conditions as severe while more than half actually met the guidelines.

What they might miss is just what conditions contribute to higher-than-normal engine stress. Manufacturers call those conditions “severe driving,” but this might be a misnomer, because it’s likely more common than people suspect.

“According to definition of severe driving, most driving is going to be considered ‘severe,’” says Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council. “However there are easy steps you can take to limit the amount of wear and tear on your vehicle and improve fuel economy.” 

One major step is right in the quick lube’s job description. Oil changes are one of the most effective preventative maintenance tasks for an engine’s long-term health. Thus, asking whether a customer is a severe driver or not is a major factor behind their oil change interval.

Here is your guide to severe driving, its definitions and how some OEMs differ in their severe maintenance schedules.

Defining ‘Severe’

The Car Care Council has a set of guidelines to determine whether or not someone drives under severe conditions. Some of the factors are specific to where drivers live, like if someone commutes over dirt roads every day or in tough, mountainous environments.

Other climate conditions that could make for severe driving includes dusty or salty environments, extreme heat and extreme cold.

Those conditions might affect drivers in certain regions. But there are more factors that encompass a wide cross-section of customers: driving frequency and length of trips. The Car Care Council defines it as stop-and-go traffic and short commutes that create severe conditions.

AAA released guidelines that are a bit more specific. In its poll, the organization looked to identify drivers who take short trips of fewer than five miles in normal temperatures or fewer than 10 miles in freezing temperatures.

Driving at low speeds for fewer than 50 miles is another factor. Consider drivers who frequently take residential roads or use their vehicles for delivery jobs. 

Weather exacerbates the severity. Short trips in cold weather can add stress to the engine, because it doesn’t have as much of a change to fully warm. Similarly, AAA suggested that stop-and-go traffic driving in hot temperatures can also be considered severe.

Also in the list are the more commonly identified factors of severe driving, such as regular towing or transporting heavy loads.

More than 60 percent of drivers in AAA’s poll met some of these conditions.

The OEM View

The general rule of thumb that techs know is to defer to the owner’s manual for manufacturer’s recommendations. What’s important to know is that while most of the companies have similar definitions for severe driving, not all automakers treat the change in maintenance the same in their recommended plans.

The manual for a 2019 Kia Optima, for example, characterizes severe as “repeatedly driving short distances” of fewer than five miles—or fewer than 10 miles in freezing temperatures. This reflects the AAA guidelines.

For good measure, Kia added “driving over 106 mph” as a factor for severe conditions.

But whether it’s under normal or severe driving conditions, Kia’s recommended oil and filter change interval is a relatively short 3,000 miles.

For its 2019 Rav 4 with recommended 0W-16 oil, Toyota recommends changes every 10,000 miles. But for severe conditions, which Toyota calls “special operating” conditions, the recommendation is cut in half to 5,000 miles.

Using a 2019 Fusion as an example, Ford recommends oil and filter changes no more than every 10,000 miles. Its severe or special driving condition plans have tiers. For towing or trailering, the normal oil change interval still applies. The same goes for “extensive idling and low-speed driving for long distances.”

But for operating in dusty or sandy conditions like unpaved roads, Ford suggests that interval be cut in half to 5,000 miles.

One automaker has at least two models with the same oil change interval, no matter the driving conditions. For the 2019 Chevrolet Malibu and Equinox, 7,500 miles is the interval for both normal and severe driving. What is different, however, is that the transmission fluid needs to be changed more often for those models.

Still, it should be noted that all automakers rely on the oil life monitor systems to be a guiding light if a change is needed sooner than the recommended interval.

Customer Service

All of this is to say that the average motorist is driving more often and in urban settings. It’s putting stress on vehicles and making the severe characteristics more of a standard than ever before.

That idea isn’t entirely new. The Filter Manufacturers Council has had a technical bulletin out for years on this very topic. The organization’s own survey was a bit different from AAA’s.

“According to a previous survey done by a member company of the Filter Manufacturers Council, history has shown only about 20 percent of vehicles are regularly driven under ‘normal’ conditions,” the bulletin reads. “That means four out of five drivers are in the ‘severe’ driving category.”

The bottom line is that as shops deal with ever-extending drain intervals from automakers, it’s as important as ever to have conversations with customers about how they drive. Their own severity might surprise them, and getting that preventative service done will pay off in the long run.

“By properly maintaining and repairing your vehicle, it will perform safely, dependably and efficiently for years to come, no matter the driving conditions,” White says.