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PREPARE YOUR CAR AND YOURSELF FOR WINTER DRIVING Senior Editor Joe Wiesenfelder Gives Advice for Winter-Weather Travelers

Before you hit the roads this winter, prepare your car and yourself for the extreme weather ahead.

"Aside from the obvious items such as a snowbrush, windshield scraper and perhaps a small shovel, consider the following simple steps so your winter travels are safe," says Joe Wiesenfelder, Senior Editor of

If you're due or overdue for any maintenance, be sure to do it now. Getting stranded is bad enough. Getting stranded in the cold or snow is simply miserable.

Specific things to check include:

  • Battery and charging system: Batteries lose capacity as temperature falls, so a battery that had no problem starting your car on a summer day may not have the juice to turn over a cold engine, which also requires more force than a warm one. If your battery is due for a replacement, do it now or have a mechanic test it.
  • Radiator and coolant: You may think of the yellow-green liquid that flows through the radiator to cool the engine as antifreeze. Technically it's coolant, a mixture of antifreeze and water. The normal ratio is 1 to 1, 50 percent of each, which should do the job down to about 30 degrees F below zero. But if for any reason that ratio is off, it could spell trouble in winter temperatures. Coolant with too much water in it can freeze in a thermostat or hose, blocking flow. An engine can overheat in winter, or worse, it can even crack an engine block. A simple meter from an auto-parts store can tell you what the ratio is in your coolant. Or you could ask a mechanic to do it for you. Also, if your coolant is rusty or hasn't been changed in a few years, get it flushed out and replaced now. (Never open a radiator that isn't cool to the touch.)
  • Windshield wipers and fluid: If your wiper blades are old, again, now's a good time to replace them. Also consider the winter type with rubber covers that prevent ice from collecting on the blades. Silicone blades are also effective and long-lasting. Check your washer system and fluid level. Top off the reservoir with straight washer fluid. People sometimes cut this fluid with water in the summer to prevent it from evaporating too quickly on a hot windshield. In winter, too much water will allow freezing and keep the fluid from ever reaching your windshield. Carry a jug in your trunk; you never want to run out when you need it most.

  • Pressure: Traction is important on water, snow and ice, so tires deserve extra attention. They do their job best when properly inflated. Tires lose about 1 pound per square inch (psi) of pressure each month and roughly 1 psi for each 10-degree drop in temperature. As a result, many motorists go into winter with under-inflated tires. Check your pressure when your tires are cold, preferably in the morning, and be sure to check every two to four weeks, especially if the temperature continues to drop.
  • Tread: If your tires are within a few thousand miles of being worn out, replace them now. A worn tire has shallow tread grooves that don't evacuate standing water as efficiently, which can lead to hydroplaning. Neither will they bite into snow as effectively as a tire with deeper grooves.
  • Tire types: In an urban or suburban area that has decent snow removal, all-season tires are the best choice. Good on water, snow, ice and dry pavement, all-season tires bear the M+S (mud and snow) marking on the sidewall.
    Modern snow tires are better than ever on snow and ice, but with few exceptions they are less effective on wet or dry pavement and can result in longer stopping distances. They're a better choice for areas with constant snow cover and little plowing. The days of buying a pair of snow tires and putting them on the drive wheels are over. Four snow tires are required to maintain the same behavior on all four wheels. Mixing tire types, models and even degrees of wear can make a vehicle unpredictable and harder to control.
    The one thing to avoid is driving with summer performance tires in the winter, whether there's snow or not. Everything that makes a summer tire effective in warm weather makes it nothing short of hazardous in the cold and snow. The rubber compound hardens, the narrow grooves offer little bite and the typically wider widths are all impediments for snow traction. (Counter-intuitively, narrow tires are better on loose snow.) Note that all-season performance tires, a relatively new category, are excepted from these warnings.
  • Cat litter and other traction aids: Clay-type cat litter, not the clumping variety, can be an effective traction aid if you get stuck in snow or ice. Sand works too. An added benefit to rear-wheel-drive cars is that the weight of a large sack or sacks in the trunk -- or the bed of a pickup that lacks four-wheel drive -- can improve traction. Modern cars have traction control, which may make this provision unnecessary. If you don't have this feature, be sure to position the weight directly over the rear axle or as far forward in the trunk as you can. Putting it behind the rear axle may promote fishtailing, which is counterproductive. Keeping the fuel tank full adds considerable weight too, and has the added advantages listed below.

Because breakdowns can happen no matter what you do, it's wise to be prepared. Consider these provisions:
  • Full tank: Keep your fuel tank at least half full. This accomplishes a few things. First, it ensures that you'll have a source of heat and light if you get stuck in a remote area. Second, it can improve traction in a rear-wheel-drive car by maintaining extra weight over the rear wheels. Third, it will help minimize water condensation from the air in the tank. Water in the fuel can lead to engine hesitation or stalling. If this has been a problem in the past, consider a bottle of gas-line antifreeze and water remover, an inexpensive fuel-tank additive available at gas stations.
  • Mobile phone: recommends using a cellular phone only when the car is stopped, but there's no doubt it represents one of the most significant safety advances in history. If you often drive in remote areas, consider keeping a 12-volt power cord in the car at all times so you won't rely on whatever battery power your phone happens to have.
  • Carry provisions: The odds are against it, but there's always a chance you'll break down in an isolated area with an engine that won't start. Don't let a major inconvenience turn into a life-threatening ordeal. All winter, carry some blankets and food in case you have to wait for a good Samaritan to come along or for a tow truck to reach you.


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