Over the River and Through the Woods. But Are You Prepared for Winter Driving?
For many, the holiday driving season begins this week. Whether you're trip involves driving just a short distance, or over many miles, and especially for those of us living in northern climates, it's crucial to be prepared. Check out some great reminders regarding the mechanical condition of your vehicle and learn how you can prepare for things that may not go exactly as planned. A few of the right moves now just might get you out of a slippery situation in the future!
Get Started with First Things First - Your Battery and Electrical System
Let's face it, without a battery that's holding a charge and a properly functioning electrical system to keep it charged, most of the other components on your car really won't matter much, because you won't be going anywhere. During warmer weather, you may not have even noticed that your battery was weak and due for a replacement, but winter is sure to provide you with a clear reminder. Before you end up stuck on the road with a car that won't start, have your mechanic inspect your battery and charging system, and address whatever components needs to be repaired or replaced. They all play critical roles in making sure that your vehicle starts and stays running.
Just Because it's Cold, Don't Forget About Your "Cooling System"
Sure it's job is to keep your engine cool while it's running, but what do you think happens when you turn your car off and temperatures plummet? Your radiator and cooling system contain a mixture of water and antifreeze, and this mixture needs to be proportioned just right in order to protect your system from freezing when your vehicle isn't running. You should check specific manufacturer's recommendations for the coldest temperatures you will encounter over the winter to determine the right mixture of water and antifreeze. The most common mix is 50-50. And resist any urge you may have to think that boosting the anti-freeze proportion of the mix, "just in case it gets really cold". Doing so will likely weaken your systems ability to resist freezing. Stick to the recommended mixture for your vehicle, your antifreeze, and your driving conditions and you'll be in great shape.
Take Care of Regular Service and Maintenance Items Before You Leave Home
Beyond your battery and your antifreeze, you should also make sure that other regular maintenance and service items are also addressed. Again, winter is unforgiving and the road is no place to break down. Making sure your vehicle is road-ready before you leave home will always be safer and less expensive than risking being stranded away in an unfamiliar place. Some items to include on this checklist would be your engine fluids, belts, hoses, water pump, spark plugs and spark plug wires.
Be sure to check your tire pressure. Air becomes more condensed in cold weather. In fact, the air pressure in your tires will drop by about one pound with every 10 degrees of drop in temperature. You can imagine that if the last time your tires were properly inflated was 50-70 degrees ago, then they'll be dangerously low now, resulting in a very hazardous situation. Also, make sure that your windshield washer reservoir is filled with a high quality, non-freezing washer fluid. In snowy or sloppy driving conditions, you'll go through a lot of washer fluid, so it's always a great idea to keep an extra gallon in your trunk for those mid-trip refills.
Make Sure You Can See Where You're Going
When you're on the road, chances are you're car or truck will be frequently parked outside, so when the ice and snow start falling your vehicle will quickly take on the look of an igloo on wheels. When it's time to drive it again, you need to make sure that you've cleared the entire car and not just some small section of your windshield. Winter driving is challenging enough without the added difficulty of limiting your visibility. If you don't find that convincing enough, you should also know that clearing the snow and ice off of your vehicle before driving it is the law in most states!
Start your car and your turn on your window defrosters. Then take your time and, as you work your way around your vehicle, clear or scrape every glass surface, your headlights and don't forget to brush the snow off of the horizontal surfaces, or this will also end up on your windows, once you start moving.
Don't be tempted to use your windshield wipers to help speed up the job. They're engineered to move liquid water off of your windshield, not frozen water. And speaking of freezing, there's a good chance that your wipers will be frozen in place until they have a chance to hopefully thaw as your defroster warms up the windshield. Engaging a frozen pair of wipers has a very good chance of wiping out your wiper motor. Don't do it.
Your Tires - Where the Rubber Really Meets the Road
Automotive engineers have made remarkable progress in creating systems that aid vehicle traction, stability and handling over the past decade. Most of these systems, though, are dependent on the vehicle's ability to transfer power or braking action onto the roadway via your tires. In fact, it's safe to say that nothing will make a bigger difference in your vehicle's winter driving than having the right tires.
Many all-season tires will perform well in winter driving conditions, but the surest way to have optimal traction in snow and ice, is with a good set of snow tires. Sure it's a little extra hassle to have these tires installed and removed before and after each winter, but if you have to drive on snow and ice frequently, the difference in starting, stopping and steering may be well worth your trouble.
Take Your Time and Enjoy Yourself
Even after you've made sure that your car or truck is mechanically ready for the road, your winter driving trips will still have aspects of risk that are different from summer driving. It's just a fact. You can mitigate the risk by being conscious of the conditions, and by taking things a whole lot slower than you otherwise would.
In fact, in winter driving conditions, it's a great idea to remember to do everything more slowly than you otherwise would. Accelerate slowly, brake gently, and turn cautiously. Always expect that you might lose traction at the least opportune time. Leave extra following distance, and remember that the posted speed limit is the maximum legal speed. It isn't a minimum, must drive this speed, speed.
If you aren't totally comfortable with driving in winter conditions, it's an excellent idea to practice. You can do this in an empty parking lot after a fresh snow, when you can practice braking and turning on a slippery surface. The more comfortable you become with knowing what your car or truck feels like right at the edge of its loss of traction, the better you'll be at avoiding that situation on the road, or recovering from it if you inadvertently go into a slide or skid.
So this holiday season, slow down, and leave some extra time during your holiday journeys. You'll be a whole lot less stressed, and you'll arrive at your destination safe and sound. Winter driving might actually become something you enjoy!