Avoid a winter driving catastrophe: 15 tips for the road

By | December 22nd, 2015

Navigating through snow, sleet or freezing rain can be challenging even for an experience motorist. But if you’re unfamiliar with winter driving conditions, it could be catastrophic.

It doesn’t have to be. Here are my top tips for your winter holiday driving, whether in your own vehicle or a rental car:

Check your spare tire or tire inflator kit. Along with run-flat tires, tire inflator kits have replaced spare tires on 29 million vehicles in the last 10 model years, according to AAA. Unfortunately, a tire repair kit isn’t a suitable substitute for a spare tire, nor are run-flat tires.

For example, sidewall damage will even flatten run-flat tires, and it can’t be repaired by tire inflator kits. Consumer Reports recounts the nightmarish tale of a motorist whose run-flat tire had a sidewall failure, causing him to be stranded for 2½ hours waiting for a tow truck.

If your car has a spare tire, make sure it’s properly inflated and you have a working jack. If you’re renting and the car has no spare, try to rent a different car. If that’s not possible, or if your personal car merely has a tire inflator kit, make sure it hasn’t expired. If it’s expired or soon to expire, replace it.

Make sure your car’s antifreeze level is adequate if heading to cold weather. You don’t want the engine to fail due to a lack of antifreeze.

Be prepared to meet weather’s challenges. Driving through sleet, snow and ice is dangerous. Quick starts are ill advised. Stopping takes considerably more distance and time in those conditions. Cars sold in the U.S. since 2012 have anti-lock brakes (ABS), which make driving in bad weather safer, but if you’re renting a car in a country with no requirement for these brakes, you’ll need to verify your rental has them.

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If you haven’t driven much in frigid weather, you may not be familiar with “black ice,” a thin, virtually transparent coating of ice on road surfaces, allowing the black road to show through. It’s often formed by rain freezing on cold road surfaces, especially on bridges. It’s extremely dangerous because it’s invisible. Drivers don’t know it’s there until their car is sliding on it. If conditions for black ice exist, drivers must assume it’s there.

Pay attention to weather forecasts at your destination and along your route. Don’t hesitate to alter your plans according to weather conditions.

In winter weather, add extra distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you compared to when roads are dry.

Don’t use cruise control on snowy or icy roads. Cruise control generally reacts improperly on wet roads if your car slips or slides, so turn it off.

Ensure your car’s tires are properly inflated. Cold temperatures reduce tire air pressure. Improperly inflated tires degrade your car’s handling characteristics, making it harder to control on slippery roads.

Adequate tire tread on all your car’s tires is essential. Tire tread enables tires to grip the road and allow water on road surfaces to escape from under them. Worn tire tread prevents that, making steering and braking difficult.

Ensure your windshield wipers are in working order. They need to sweep freely and follow the contour of your windshield properly, without streaking.

Ensure your windshield washer reservoir is filled with “de-icer” fluid. Top off the reservoir with de-icer, so you’ll have ample fluid to clean your windshield as needed.

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Ensure your rental car has an ice scraper. If not, and the rental car company has none, buy one.

Keep your fuel tank at least half full at all times. You never know when a traffic jam or accident will stop your travels, or if car woes such as a flat tire might strand you for hours. You’ll need plenty of fuel, if stuck, to keep warm in winter and your battery charged to power your lights for safety.

Carry a car emergency kit. My car emergency kit for winter travel includes a blanket, water, snacks, first aid kit, small LED emergency flasher and a flashlight.

Have a fully charged cellphone with you in case of emergency. This is essential whether driving on interstate highways or back roads.

Make sure a third party has your itinerary and driving route. Give a friend or family member your itinerary, driving route, and arrival times. If you don’t arrive at your destination on time and you’re unreachable, they can contact local authorities and tell them where to search for you.

If you have a smartphone, keep its locator on, so friends or family could use an app such as the iPhone’s “Find my iPhone,” as an emergency locator. Don’t forget to give them your password, if needed, to use the app.

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