Owners Tips

COVID-19 and Car Ownership: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

With the arrival and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are experiencing immense changes to their daily lives. Across the country, the government has mandated physical distancing and has halted all non-essential travel and business to limit the spread of the virus.

In this article, we will address how Canadians can handle their automotive needs during these extraordinary times. This is a rapidly evolving situation, so while we'll do our best to keep you informed, things can change quickly.

What is Considered Essential Travel and Essential Services?

Most provinces have issued recommendations or orders to stay home unless it's necessary or essential travel, but haven't always been clear on what is considered as essential. Grocery, essential work, pharmacy, and other medical purposes are considered essential.

The list of essential services and workplaces differs from province to province (Ontario's latest order is listed here), but the list of automotive-related essential businesses typically includes transportation services, businesses that support transportation systems, motor vehicle sales and service and related business (includes car rental services), fuel providers, and insurance providers. As this situation is still fluid and differs from province to province, check with your local officials for the most pertinent information.

[Update, April 6: The Ontario government has now deemed car dealerships as a non-essential service, so most are closed now but their service centres remain open.]

What if I Need Gas?

Gas stations are essential services, so most stations should remain open. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control says that "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Still, to protect yourself at the gas pump, there are some precautions you can take while getting fuel that we outline in this article on minimizing potential exposure.

As a recap, here are some precautions you can take while getting fuel:

  • Go during off-peak hours
  • Try to find a full-service pump
  • Pay using contactless solution
  • Wear protective gloves or use a paper towel to hold the pump
  • Wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as soon as possible

What if My License or Registration is About to Expire?

Not every province has closed their motor vehicle departments yet, but most have, meaning that you can't go in to renew your license or registration. Most provinces allow you to renew your registration online and most have made some extra allowances for this situation.

AB Alberta has extended all driving licenses, vehicle registrations, ID cards, and other permits and the validation tab until May 15, 2020. If yours expires before then, you do not need to renew until May 15, though vehicle registration can be completed online. Driving tests are cancelled, though some emergency allowances are being investigated. Alberta Registry Agents may still be open (we suggest calling ahead to make sure), and the Alberta Motor Association has closed all of its centres to walk-in traffic.

BC Most ICBC transactions can now be completed over the phone and the agency is allowing up to 90-day deferments on insurance payments if needed, a task that can be done online. License renewals can be done over the phone, including reinstatements and lost licenses. Road tests have been suspended. Some ICBC offices are still open, as are claim centres. Service BC centres are also open but recommend that you call your local office to ensure the service you want is still available.

MB Manitoba Public Insurance is now allowing many transactions by phone, without the need to visit a Service Centre or Autopac agent. That includes new registration and policy, renewal of license, reapplication of a lapsed license, license replacement, or any insurance changes. Road tests are cancelled until further notice. Some Centres and Autopac agents are open, but MPI encourages you to call first.

NB Many Service NB centres are currently closed, but some are open for essential services only including motor vehicle transfers and road tests for class 1/3/4 only, as well as restoration of driving privileges. All licenses, registrations, and other permits will remain valid until May 31, but motor vehicle inspection expirations do not change.

NL Newfoundland and Labrador's Service NL counter service has been discontinued with registration, address changes, license renewals, and notices of sale to be completed online. Assistance with these online transactions is available by calling your local Service NL office. Any transactions that can't be completed online are to be done via email.

NS Service Nova Scotia access centres and Registry of Motor Vehicle Offices are currently closed but may reopen for essential services. All driver licenses, temporary permits, vehicle registrations, and foreign plates and licenses are valid until August 31, which includes accessible parking permits. Many services are still available online and Motor Vehicle Inspections are still required to be completed on time.

ON Service Ontario has announced that "we have extended validation to expired and expiring driver’s licences, health cards, Ontario Photo Cards, licence plate stickers and many more products. You do not need to renew at this time." Most ServiceOntario centres remain open but they're telling customers to check with the specific location before visiting, as there are some closures and this is subject to change.

PEI Access PEI says that all expired and expiring driver licences, ID cards, and registration permits are being extended by 60 days, up to June 1. Renewals can still be made online. PEI is also extending motor vehicle inspections for the same time period. Access PEI service counters are closed at this time.

PQ The SAAQ has limited its service outlets to essential services only, with reduced hours. They ask that you go to a service outlet only for "an essential work-related service," but to check opening hours in advance as well, as the list of services as these are changing. Online services are available. The SAAQ is suspending medical assessment requirements and indicates that enforcement will be lenient with drivers who have a temporary registration longer than is normally allowed given the situation. Drivers needing a vehicle inspection will get an additional month. Probationary licenses that expire can continue to be used, and lost licenses can be replaced at service outlets, but other licenses and registrations have not been extended as they can be completed online.

SK SGI offices are currently by appointment only to ensure social distancing. All customers are encouraged to contact SGI or their license issuer via phone, email, and online services. Registration renewals, license payments, and auto claims can all be handled online. New customer licenses and new vehicle registrations that require a new plate must be done in-person, and customers are asked to call their local branch to make arrangements.

Currently, Yukon vehicle services are operating normally, as are the Northwest Territories, though some offices are closed. Call your local office to arrange services, but renewals can be done online. In Nunavut, all non-urgent services are suspended including new licenses, but vehicle registrations and most license renewals are still being completed.

What if My Car Breaks Down?

Most tow operators, which includes roadside assistance providers, are still running, as they are an essential service, but many have changed the way they operate. CAA of Southern and Central Ontario, a major roadside assistance operator, says that "road service will continue to operate without interruption. However, steps have been taken to prepare our roadside network: Drivers have been asked to limit physical contact with Members (no hand shaking). We have increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of CAA trucks. Best practices to reduce the risk of illness have been shared across the network." CAA Atlantic says that service will continue, but that "you will not be able to ride in the service vehicle when the driver arrives to provide service." If you need a tow, it's safe to expect you'll need to arrange your own transportation home.

What if I Get a Flat Tire?

If you have a flat tire, those same tow truck companies will come to help, but if your spare is also flat, they'll have to tow you and you'll need to find your own way home. It would be wise to check the tire pressure in your spare and make sure that all of the factory-provided tools are present, especially a wheel lock key if you have one.

What if I Need to Service My Car?

What about that oil change and service that's coming due? If you're not comfortable with doing your own auto maintenance, there are solutions.

Auto dealers with service departments are quickly moving to follow social distancing in stores and to protect customers and employees. Many are moving to appointment-only service, and some are making efforts to pick up and drop off vehicles, properly sanitizing them in both cases. Drive-through maintenance services are still open as well, and also allow you to remain in your vehicle during all stages of service. National chain Mr Lube has eliminated paper invoices, stopped serving drinks and shared materials, and is wiping down payment terminals after every use among other enhanced cleaning procedures.

Because this is such a quickly changing situation, our best advice is to call your preferred service centre to find out what they're doing. If you're concerned with missing service and your vehicle is still under warranty, call your dealer or the manufacturer for assistance.

What About Taking My Winter Tires Off?

You can safely drive with your winter tires on during warmer weather, and although our experts normally wouldn't recommend using winter tires year-round, this is an exception for extraordinary times. Because most Canadians aren't driving as much as normal, the slight increase in wear, fuel economy, and noise (and possible slightly longer braking distances) isn't a large concern right now.

If you are still driving long distances and feel safer with your summer or all-season tires, you have options. While most garages and service departments are still open, one option for getting your wheels swapped is to have a mobile tire service come to do the changeover in your driveway. They should be able to complete the whole job without even opening your car door. 

What Should I Do if My Vehicle is Sitting for Long Periods of Time?

If you're concerned that your car won't start if it's been parked for extended periods of time, don't be too worried. We spoke with multiple licensed automotive technicians including one who has worked for VW, Toyota, GM, and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, and their advice was consistent. If your vehicle will be sitting, it's best to let it sit. Your battery should be fine for a few weeks or even longer unless it was old and near failure anyway. If you have a maintenance or trickle charger, it's a good idea to use it, but the mechanics we spoke to said not to bother going out to buy one. If your battery does die, you can get a jump from any roadside assistance company or they can tow you to a garage to get a replacement, as they're considered essential services. Some even offer on-location battery swaps.

As far as starting and running your car to maintain a charge, that's likely to do more harm than good unless you're going out on a longer highway drive. Instead of sitting in your driveway idling for an hour or a driving around the block, just leave the vehicle parked, preferably indoors. We have a more detailed article here on tips to extend the life of your car's battery.

You should also make sure the car is clean inside because any remaining food, wrappers, drink containers, and even clothes can attract rodents, which could cause extensive and expensive issues.

If you're concerned about your fuel sitting, filling up with ethanol-free fuel could help, as could adding fuel stabilizer, but unless your vehicle will be sitting for many months, it isn't necessary.

What If I Bought a Used Car Recently?

Health Canada says preliminary information suggests the COVID-19 virus "may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days depending on different conditions." If you bought a used car recently and are concerned, you can take steps to disinfect your car. We have an article here that outlines this in more detail, but you can use disinfecting wipes or rubbing alcohol to disinfect the high-touch surfaces of the car like the steering wheel, door handles, buttons, seatbelts, etc. It's important not to used bleach-based cleaners in your car, as it can cause discolouration and damage to the surfaces.

What if I Can't Make My Car Payments?

If you're worried about your car payments because of a sudden change in your financial situation, many automakers and lenders are offering deferrals and other assistance. Contact your lender, which should be in the paperwork you got when you purchased your vehicle, or see our article that covers this in more detail.

What if My Lease is Ending?

That same applies if you're nearing the end of your lease and are worried about returning your vehicle on schedule. There's more information in the article linked above about some companies extending leases, but contact your dealer or the manufacturer of your vehicle for information specific to your situation.

While many vehicle dealerships are remaining open, some have made the decision to close and many are reducing hours. If you're not able to reach your preferred dealer, customer service information for your manufacturer is available online or in the owner's manual in your vehicle. If you're self-isolating or in quarantine, don't try to visit a dealership; call your dealer, automaker, or lender to make alternate arrangements.

What if I Need to Buy a Vehicle?

If you're still in the market for a new or used vehicle, those open dealerships are able to accommodate and some have innovative methods of connecting with customers like video walkthroughs, new tech for signing contracts remotely, live chats, and more. autoTRADER.ca is still operating and is an option for doing online research.

Follow proper social distancing guidelines if you're shopping for vehicles. Some manufacturers are also offering programs to assist during this time. Hyundai is offering a six-month deferral program on new vehicle sales as well as lower interest rates on financing. Ford is currently offering to defer three payments and make three for you on new vehicles through Ford Credit. We expect more automakers to begin to offer incentives, so if you need to purchase a vehicle at this time, keep an eye out for announcements.

Can I Buy a Car Online?

You can do much of the car buying process, like researching and finding a vehicle, online using autoTRADER.ca's search as well as automaker and dealer sites. You can even apply for financing online in most cases through a dealer's site, and many are allowing consumers to complete applications over the phone or over email. Tesla also sells its cars online, but some parts of the transaction usually related to paperwork, may still need to be completed in person.

As this is changing rapidly, different provinces have different regulations in regards to how sales and contracts can be completed, and different retailers will have different approaches, it is best to reach out to your vehicle retailer of choice through phone or email.

What About My Interest Rate?

Dropping interest rates won't affect most existing vehicle loans, but some buyers do have variable rates that may be reduced as a result of the changing rates. Most banks don't post their car loan rates, but you can call your lender for details about your loan and what they can offer. That same advice applies to anyone looking at new financing.

What About My Insurance?

Insurance is an essential service, so your insurance is still valid and in effect. No Canadian government has yet issued an extension of insurance policies, though some public insurers, like in B.C., have offered payment deferrals for those in need. If you are unable to make your insurance payment, we encourage you to contact your insurance provider, who may be able to offer assistance.

Insurance regulations are unchanged, so you still need to follow those of your jurisdiction. You still need to report any collisions, though if there is not an emergency, you should call your insurer or the non-emergency police number in your area for the latest instructions.

Can I Rent a Car?

Car rental services have been deemed essential in Ontario and remain open. Companies including Hertz and Enterprise have lowered their usual minimum age requirement to 18 years old, and are waiving young renter fees to help students and other young people return home now that university and college campuses are closed. Enterprise requires a student ID, but Hertz does not and other rental providers may not.

Rental agencies have also stepped up cleaning of cars and shuttle buses. Hertz stated that "around the world, we have enhanced our cleaning methods at our locations and our shuttle buses including using approved disinfectant to regularly wipe down high-touch areas such as door handles, counters, kiosks and other hard surfaces.

"We’ve added more alcohol-based hand sanitizers and are reminding employees to take important hygiene steps, including frequent hand washing and staying home if ill. For our vehicles, we are reinforcing our rigorous cleaning process which includes priority areas such as door handles, steering wheel, dashboard, console, seats, etc."

If you're not sure about your local rental agency, we suggest calling them and asking what procedures they have enacted and are following.

The health and safety of our community is our top priority. autoTRADER.ca encourages all Canadians to practice social distancing in accordance with recommendations by Health Canada and avoid non-essential travel. It's up to all of us to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If the purchase of a vehicle is essential to your situation, please contact your local dealership to discuss options relative to your region and ensure accordance with Health Canada guidelines. For more information on how COVID-19 might impact Canadian car owners, see our resource page here.