2008-12-11 / News

Tips for driving in winter conditions

By Eileen M. Daly

'Tis the Season: Thanksgiving has come and gone, Christmas is on the way and already we've had our first snowstorm and several weeks of slippery road conditions. According to experts at Car Talk, AAA Southern New England, and the National Safety Council there are a number of strategies motorists can adopt to help insure safe driving during these difficult conditions.

All the experts agree that the best advice for driving in winter weather is not to drive at all. If possible, wait for conditions to improve or at least for snow plows and sanding trucks to have a chance to do their work. If you must drive in the snow or ice the following tips will help you to avoid disaster.

Well before winter conditions arrive, motorists should make sure their cars are in top condition for winter driving. Art Washburn from Art's Auto Body recommends motorists have their vehicles checked to insure they are in good running condition. "The car should be given an overall check to make sure it is in good running condition and to insure that the cooling and heating systems are working correctly," Washburn said, "In addition, having good tires on the car, if not snow tires, makes a big difference in winter driving."

Donna Pemantell at Central Garage concurs with Washburn's advice about overall maintenance. "It is really important to make sure that your tires are in good condition, the car battery is charged as high as possible, windshield wipers are in good condition and overall maintenance is kept up," Pemantell said. Even a well maintained car can break down in winter weather, however, or, as Washburn points out, an unexpected storm like the Blizzard of 1978 can strand even the most prepared motorist, so it is a good idea to carry a winter safety kit. Washburn recommends some basic items. "It is a good idea to carry some warm blankets along with a few energy bars and water bottles. Of course, every car should have a flashlight all year round," Washburn said, "It is really a matter of having some common sense items on hand." The following safety items are recommended by AAA: a flashlight and extra batteries, lock de-icer (make sure it is on your person or in the house so it doesn't end up locked in the car,) jumper cables, abrasive material (sand or kitty litter to spread under tires for added traction should your vehicle become stuck,) a small shovel, warning devices such as flares or reflective triangles, blankets, a snow brush/ice scraper and a cellular phone.

Don't cut corners. Before leaving the house, make sure your car is completely cleared of snow and ice. Again, all the experts agree that skimping on this basic rule will increase the chances of having an accident. Make sure that all windows, mirrors, and lights are clear and don't forget to sweep snow from the roof of the car. Visibility is essential in poor driving conditions.

Once you are on the road, remember that it takes significantly longer to stop in slippery conditions. Give yourself the added time necessary to maneuver by driving slower and by keeping more distance between yourself and other drivers. AAA recommends increasing the normal distance of two to three seconds to eight to ten seconds.

Know your car. Different vehicles require different winter driving habits, according to AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul. Front-wheeldrive vehicles generally handle better than rear-wheel drive vehicles in winter conditions because of the difference in weight distribution. Don't become overconfident, however, if you are driving a sport-utility vehicle or light truck, Paul warns, you still have to observe basic safety rules for winter driving.

Differences in braking systems also require different driving maneuvers, according to Paul. Vehicles equipped with anti-lock brake systems (ABS) are better for stopping under slippery conditions, but only if used properly. When stopping a car with an ABS system, apply steady pressure to the brake pedal; the ABS system will do the brake pumping for you. When driving a vehicle without an ABS system, drivers should apply firm, steady pressure to the "threshold" of locking the brakes, according to Paul.

Be aware that warming conditions following a freeze can increase the severity of driving conditions. According to AAA, temperatures at or just above 32 degrees can cause a thin layer of water to cover icy conditions. This results in extremely dangerous driving conditions. The distance required to stop under these conditions is twice as long as the time needed to stop when temperatures are at or below zero degrees.

If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself in a dangerous skid, the National Safety Council recommends these corrective strategies:

Rear wheel skid: Take your foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If the rear wheels then start to slide the other way, turn toward that side. You may have to turn right and left a few times to get the vehicle under control. Pump standard brakes gently or apply steady pressure to anti-lock brakes. Do not Pump.

For a front wheel skid: Take foot off gas and shift to neutral. Do not try to steer immediately. Once the vehicle slows and traction returns, steer in the direction you want to go.

If you get stuck: Do not spin wheels, this only digs the car in deeper.

Turn wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way. Using a light touch on the gas, try to ease car out. Use a shovel to clear snow from wheels and underside of car. Pour sand, kitty litter, gravel or salt in the path of the wheels to help get traction. Try rocking the vehicle (check owner's manual to be sure it will not damage your transmission.) Shift from forward to reverse and back again. Each time you're in gear use a light touch on the gas.

If you become stranded: Do not leave the car, unless you know exactly where you are, how far it is to help, and you are certain it will improve your situation. Attract attention by lighting flares and placing in front of and behind vehicle. Hang a brightly colored cloth from antennae or out window. Make sure car exhaust is not blocked by snow or ice

If exhaust is not blocked you may run heater about ten minutes per hour depending on gas level. Use blankets or woolen items to protect from frostbite. Keep at least one window open slightly to prevent heavy snow and ice from sealing the car shut.

Use hard candy to keep your mouth moist.

Follow these tips and have a safe and healthy winter driving season.

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