Let's face it: We can't close the door on winter. Even though walking up a sandy beach to climb into a top-down convertible is far preferable to stumbling down a snow-covered sidewalk, only to scramble into a frigid car that may or may not start. When you get right down to the nub, winter driving is darn inconvenient and, at its worst, it can be supremely hazardous. But that doesn't mean you have to park your chariot in the garage and hibernate all winter, as tempting as that may sound.
A little bit of preparation and a big pinch of patience can make winter driving a reasonably painless experience. First, see to it that your vehicle is prepared for the long winter's night. Then, determine if your skills and psyche are equally well tuned to the task. Herewith are suggestions for you and your vehicle that might make the difference between a joyous winter season and a cold winter's nap.
Prepare Your Vehicle
Your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system should be in top condition. These systems have a harder workout in the winter than they do in the summer. The condition of your windshield wipers and the performance of your defroster are crucial to your vision and your safety.
Check your cooling system anti-freeze and add anti-freeze solvent to your windshield washer reservoir to prevent icing. The windshield washer is an often neglected but vital piece of safety equipment. If you run out of fluid or if your system freezes, it can severely injure your ability to see.
Check your tires. Make sure they are properly inflated and the tread isn't worn out. Many vehicles are equipped with so-called "all-season" tires, and these tires perform well in most weather conditions. For reliable traction in snow, however, specially designed snow tires are best.
Consider carrying traction devices, such as snow chains or snow treads. Check that they are the proper size, in working order and, equally important, that you know how to install them. Pack gloves and a flashlight to aid installation, which usually occurs in the worst weather imaginable. Traction devices must be installed on the drive wheels, so find out if your vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive. Note, too, that even some sport utility vehicles these days are primarily front-wheel drive. They might benefit from having chains or other devices installed on the front wheels.
Carry an ice scraper or commercial deicer; a broom for brushing snow off your car; a shovel to free your car from drifts; sand, kitty litter or carpet scraps for traction if your wheels should become mired in snow; and a towel to wipe your sweat and clean your hands.
Carry water, food, reflective "space" blankets and extra clothing. While these preparations might make you feel like you're a member of the Donner party, you'll be relieved to have them in case of a lengthy delay at a snow-closed highway.
Keep plenty of fuel in your gas tank. Though you don't need to top off at every opportunity, you don't want to be stuck in bad weather with a short supply of fuel. Remember, it might be necessary to change routes during a bad storm or you might be caught in a traffic delay.
Keep your vehicle's windshield and windows clean. Many winter accidents are caused by limited visibility, so use your windshield wipers and windshield wiper solvent generously. Don't hesitate to stop at a safe turnout to use a snow brush or scraper to gain better visibility in all directions. And use the car defroster and a clean cloth to keep the windows fog free.
Put an extra car key in your wallet or pocket. A number of motorists have locked themselves out when applying traction devices.
Get an early start to allow enough time to complete your trip. Remember that poor winter weather necessitates a slower rate of travel, so trips that take an hour in the summer might take twice to three times as long. Rushing to reach a destination in bad weather conditions is a prescription for disaster.
Drive defensively. Speeds that are appropriate on dry, well-lit highways can be dangerous in poor weather conditions. Snow and ice on the pavement will drastically increase the distance it takes for your vehicle to stop, so leave more distance between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead.
Be careful on bridges and in areas of sun and shade. Overpasses and shady spots can be icy when other portions of the pavement are not, so be particularly wary when crossing a bridge or driving in area of intermittent sun and shade. Sudden stops and quick direction changes on slick and icy surfaces can be especially dangerous.
Be observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions. You may encounter slow-moving vehicles, including snow-moving equipment. Stay alert for the flashing lights that might warn you of such equipment on the roadway.
If you are stalled or stranded, stay with your vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warm. Be alert to any possible carbon monoxide problems within your car; recognizing that carbon monoxide is an odorless, invisible gas that can creep into your vehicle through a leaky exhaust system. When stranded, make certain that the outlet of your exhaust pipe remains unimpeded by snow and ice.
Obey highway signs indicating chains are required or road closures. You can be cited by authorities and fined, or even jailed if you don't. By all means, don't venture into areas where roads have been closed. they're closed for a reason, and that reason is safety.
Drive slowly when equipped with chains or other traction devices. The speed limit when chains are required is usually 25 or 30 miles an hour.
Steer clear of danger when installing safety devices. When you put on traction equipment, wait until you can pull completely off the roadway to the right. Do not stop in a traffic lane.
Having lived in Illinois and California, Jack Nerad is a veteran of winter and mountain driving. Thanks to the California Department of Transportation for its contributions to this article.
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