Whether you’re leaving the city heading to the Mammoth Mountain/Lake Tahoe High Sierra country for its beauty and relaxation, or planning that ski trip from Scottsdale to Snowbowl, here are some tips for a safe and pleasant journey. Be sure to see also Part 2: “Don’t get in Trouble, but if you do -–.“
Driving in winter conditions tests your car to the limit. If something isn't working properly under the best conditions it certainly isn't going to work when it's cold and stormy.
Check weather and travel conditions before heading out. Don't take chances if the weather is bad. Don’t drive when there are whiteouts, freezing rain or blizzards. Leave early to allow extra time to get to your destination. Buckle up; always use your belt. This means all passengers and children, too.
Whenever starting your car, make sure that there is nothing obstructing the tailpipe, and never warm up your car in a closed garage.
If you feel tired, pull off the road and rest!
Check engine oil, especially before long trips. Use winter weight (5W-30) or all-season oil.
Check tire pressure, tire condition, and spare tire pressure regularly. Tires lose on the average 1 pound per month through normal leakage.
Inspect the belts and hoses to be sure they are free from frays, cracks, leaks or rotted rubber. Make sure that radiator hose clamps are tight in order to prevent leaks at the connections.
Be sure all lights are in good working order, and that your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system are in top condition.
Have a mechanic check the battery and charging system. Keep battery terminals clean, tight, free of corrosion, and dry. If you find that you need a new battery, get the biggest that will fit in your car.
Keep the windshield and windows clear. Change to winter wiper blades, which are made for driving in snow. Check windshield washer fluid level. It’s a good idea to keep some extra fluid in the trunk in case you run out. Make sure you get fluid appropriate for the lowest temperature you will experience.
Check coolant level and mixture. Make certain the antifreeze will protect your car to the lowest winter temperature you'll be exposed to where you will be driving.
Keep the gas tank as full as possible. It may be necessary to change routes or turn back during a bad storm, or you may be caught in a traffic delay. If you get stranded, the engine will be your only source of heat. (Make sure you keep a window open a crack if you're sitting there with the engine running.)
Always keep an updated map of your route, an extra car key in your pocket, and a cell phone and small change or a calling card for a payphone.
It’s a good idea to keep a winter survival kit in your vehicle: blanket, hats, boots, gloves, change of clothing, small broom, ice scraper, small snow shovel, towel, flashlight, batteries, kitty litter or burlap for traction, jumper cables, a tool kit, tire chains, a properly inflated spare tire, wheel wrench and tripod-type jack. Additional items for the trunk include a Help sign to put in your window, brightly-colored cloth, a compass, first aid kit, wooden matches in a waterproof container, scissors, string, and canned food along with a can opener.
Always carry chains. Sandbags in the trunk over the rear axle will provide better traction in rear wheel vehicles. Use winter tires. They improve driving safety by providing better traction and handling through snow, slush, and on ice, but never mix tires of different tread, size and construction. Because of winter's lower temperatures, the air pressure in tires will drop. Check tires after driving a short distance to warm them up for an accurate reading. Adding air to cold tires can result in over-inflated tires when they warm up.
It can take ten times longer to stop in icy conditions than on a dry road. Don't get overconfident with four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive helps you get going quicker but it won't help you stop any faster. Drive slowly, allowing extra room to slow down and stop. Use the highest gear possible to avoid wheel spin. Maneuver gently, avoiding harsh braking and acceleration.
If your car is equipped with anti-lock brakes, do not pump them. To avoid skids, brake carefully and gently on snow or ice. "Squeeze" your brakes in slow, steady strokes. Allow the wheels to keep rolling. If they start to lock up, ease off the brake pedal. As you slow down, you may also want to shift gently into a lower gear.
Be careful when approaching shaded areas, bridges, and overpasses, as these sections of road freeze much sooner in cold weather and stay frozen long after the sun has risen. Don't use your cruise control or overdrive when it's freezing (or colder). Even roads that appear clear can have isolated slippery spots and the quick touch of your brakes to deactivate cruise control can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. With overdrive, as you encounter a hill your vehicle automatically accelerates or downshifts, which can cause loss of traction.