Winter driving survival tips
By Eric Peters
for immediate release
Getting through the winter with your car -- and you -- all in one piece is the goal. Making it there is the trick. But you can increase the odds in your favor by following a few common-sense winter driving tips:
* Know the weather: Before you head out, find out what you're up against. In summer, you don't have to worry about fording through snowdrifts, the possibility of black ice -- or freezing rain. But whenever there's moisture and falling temperatures, you've got more problems to consider than having to wash the car again. If the forecast calls for heavy snow, consider altering your plans. Leave the office early -- or don't go in at all. If there's freezing rain -- and black ice on the roads -- stay put, if you can. A personal day at home is better than a week at the body shop -- or a trip to the hospital.
* Prepare your vehicle: Check and replace the wiper blades if they are more than three months old; this is especially important as the seasons change. Consider a set of "winter" blades -- these will do a better job of clearing your windshield in cold climate driving. Top off the windshield washer jar with fresh fluid. Be certain all four tires are properly inflated (see your owner's manual) and have adequate tread left. Consider changing over to all-season or even snow tires if you own a vehicle equipped with high-performance tires designed for summer weather and dry pavement. Many new sport and luxury sedans are factory-equipped with tires that are wonderful on dry roads in warm weather but more slippery than a politican's promise in snow, wet and cold.
* Know your vehicle: More precisely, know its built-in limits. Some kinds of cars -- for example, rear-drive sports cars and sport sedans -- and 2WD pick-ups and SUVs -- are much worse in winter driving environments than others. They break traction on slippery surfaces with much less provocation -- and because of their low-to-the-ground design (in the case of sporty cars) can get mired in even a couple of inches of freshly deposited snow. 2WD pick-ups and SUVs are "light in the rear" and prone to fishtailing -- especially if not equipped with electronic traction control of some kind. Vehicles that are not snow-friendly should be left in the garage when severe weather hits. But if you absolutely have to drive, drive with added caution and full awareness that you are starting out with a vehicle that's not at its best in the snow and wet.
* Keep the tank full: Fuel adds weight -- which gives you more traction (especially if the car is rear-wheel-drive). But even more important, a full tank means you'll have power (and heat) even if you get stuck in a monster traffic jam caused by bad weather or have to park by the side of the road for an extended period of time. In addition, keeping the gas tank topped off helps prevent condensation -- water in your gas -- which can lead to hard starting and rough running.
* Slow down: Allow more time to get where you need to be. Drive at reasonable speeds. The single biggest contributor to winter accidents is poor traction and subsequent loss of control. The faster you're going, the less traction you have -- and the more time you need to slow down. Neither the presence of four-wheel or all-wheel-drive (or electronic stability aids and traction control systems) mean you can drive as fast you would on a clear summer day and be just as safe. AWD and 4WD will help get you going, but they don't make your vehicle stop any better. Likewise, electronic aids can reduce wheel slip, but won't keep you from sliding off the road or into a guardrail as a result of excessive speed.
* Maintain momentum: The best race drivers are the smoothest drivers -- and this is just as true of making progress in bad weather. Accelerate gradually, without mashing the pedal (which will usually cause the drive wheels to slip and slide). Ease into the brakes gently to slow down in a controlled fashion -- don't stomp on the pedal. Anticipate -- rather than react. Under certain circumstances, it's safer to keep moving rather than come to a full stop and risk getting stuck. For example, if there's a stop sign at the crest of a steep hill, the best approach is to tackle the hill by maintaining a smooth, steady pace, then slowing down enough to make sure it's safe before very carefully continuing on your way. The idea is to keep the tires rolling - - and inertia on your side. (Obviously, you should come to a complete stop if the intersection is busy and there are other cars present; but if not, it's sometimes better to obey common sense than an arbitrary traffic law.)
* Increase your following distance: Tailgating is always dangerous, but especially so in poor weather. Poor traction means braking distances increase -- which is why you should always maintain 3-4 full cars lengths to give you adequate time to avoid rear-ending the car ahead of you if he slows down suddenly.
* Lights on: Whenever you need your windshield wipers, you also need to have your headlights on. This will make your car more visible to other drivers, especially at intersections, around blind curves and other areas where cars are merging with traffic. If you have fog lights, use them -- but don't use your high beams. The glare can temporarily blind oncoming traffic.
* Prepare to ditch: Good drivers know accidents can happen regardless of how carefully and conscientiously you're driving; they try to prepare for them ahead of time. As you drive, look around you and be thinking about where you'd want to point the car if you had to run off the road. It's better, for example, to slide into a relatively soft median strip than slam into a concrete barrier or telephone pole. Packed snow has more give than a fixed object such as an oak tree or bridge abutment. And beware of water -- rivers, ponds, etc. If you have to leave the road, you do not want to go there. Hitting almost anything else is preferable to taking a dive into ice-cold water.