The winter months present unique hazards. It's important to be prepared for the worst, and to know how to mitigate the dangers of snowy and icy roads.
Since your tires are the spot where your vehicle meets the road, having healthy tires is vital for safe driving during winter weather. Check your treads for wear by using a ruler or a US quarter. The treads should go at least 1/8 of an inch down.
When using a quarter, face George Washington’s head towards you upside down and insert the coin edge into the tread. The coin should sink far enough down into the tread so that the top of George’s hair is at least touching the tread edge. A tread that is deep enough to travel down to George’s forehead is even better, but one that leaves any amount of room between the tread and George’s hair has too much wear and you should replace it.
Also look out that the wear is even on all spots of all four tires. Uneven wear usually means that the tires have not been balanced and rotated properly.
For areas that are going to experience ten or more days of below freezing temperatures during the winter (that’s most of the US other than South Florida, South Texas, Southern California and Hawaii), you should probably invest in some extra safety measures for your tires. Keep a set of tire chains on hand. All weather tires also handle adverse weather conditions better than normal tires, and work well with snow chains.
For areas hit by regular snowfall throughout the winter, investing in a set of snow tires will help you get better performance and safer levels of reliability during wet, snowy, or icy conditions. There are several options when it comes to snow tires:
Remember to use the same type of tire for all four tires — be they radials, snow tires, siped, etc. — or else you risk reduced traction and an increased likelihood of skidding.
Older cars used to require a complete “winterization” process that meant changing out several components and all the fluids. Modern cars do not require such extensive preparation, but there are still several tasks worth performing.
The first step is to make sure that your vehicle will not have trouble starting. Cold weather reduces the strength of electrical charges and can make your vehicle have difficulty starting, especially on cold mornings. Check that your spark plug is clean and that your distributor is functioning properly to eliminate the most common trouble spots.
Your battery will also have a reduced charge during cold weather, making sluggish starts more likely. Check that your battery cables have no cracks and that your terminal connections are solid and reliable. You can also test your battery when the engine is off with a hydrometer to get an idea of its total charge. You should replace any batteries that have been having trouble during warm weather or that are more than four years old.
One way to ensure that your battery will not give you trouble during cold weather is to check its cold cranking amps (CCA) rating. This measurement indicates how well the battery will start during 0 degree Fahrenheit weather (-17 Celsius). A higher CCA rating means that the battery will have less trouble in cold conditions, when engine oil becomes thicker and the charge potential is lowered.
Speaking of oil, climates that regularly dip below freezing require a special blend of winter engine oil. 5W30 is the typical recommendation for oil type, but the best oil to use can vary based on your vehicle and region. Consult your owner’s manual to see what your auto manufacturer recommends for your particular model.
Antifreeze is another vital component to keep an engine running in cold weather. Like the name suggests, this liquid chemical resists your fluids freezing in their lines and causing permanent damage. One can typically mix antifreeze coolant with water in a ratio of 60 percent coolant and 40 percent water. Consult a local automotive expert such as a repair garage or auto dealership to find the recommended mix for your area.
Other fluids that should be checked before winter are:
Issues with any of these systems could trigger a dangerous situation on roads with reduced traction from snow or ice.
If you haven’t compared car insurance rates since last winter, you could be paying too much. Why not take a moment to compare quotes and lower your insurance rates?
Outside of reduced traction, one of the most dangerous aspects of winter driving is reduced visibility. Snowy or blustery conditions tend to reduce view distance, while snow, frost and condensation can limit viewing from your windshield.
To make sure that you can see at all times during the winter, begin with the right equipment. Your windshield wipers should be able to handle snow or slush without leaving streaks. You can also mix in a small amount of antifreeze into your wiper fluid or buy a pre-mixed solution. Keep in mind, though, that some chemicals in antifreeze can damage certain types of auto paint after repeated exposure.
Another system that needs to work properly during the winter is your car’s heater. While most heat settings use the heat generated by the engine, you should be certain that your defrosting blowers can put out consistent hot air when you need it. Before driving, always wait for your windows to defrost completely.
A simple way to ensure visibility is to purchase an ice scraper. These devices normally cost between three and nine dollars but make a world of difference in the winter. Buy extras to stock in your garage, car and office to be certain that you’ll have one when you need it most.
Also, go through the effort to completely clear off snow and ice from your vehicle’s entire exterior rather than just a few patches before driving. Driving safely requires a full 360-degree view of the road outside of all windows. Scraping off a small “portal” just in front of the driver’s seat surrounds you with blind spots. Similarly, leaving snow on the roof of your car can mean that the snow will slide forward onto the windshield when braking and obstruct your view.
Getting stranded from an accident or a vehicle malfunction is always inconvenient, but in the winter it can be deadly. To reduce your risk of hypothermia or other problems, keep a well-stocked emergency kit on hand that includes:
With your car properly prepared, it's still important to adjust your driving habits to remain safe in the winter months. Slowing down is key, but there's more to it than that. Cars handle very differently on snowy roads, and knowing how to adjust is important. Here is some general advice for driving in the snow:
Following these precautions can reduce the likelihood of an accident or car troubles during the winter. However, you can never guarantee that you’ll always be safe during dangerous driving conditions. Avoid driving during snowstorms or freezing conditions if possible.
You should also consider extending your coverage to include weather-based collisions or even roadside assistance.
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