Driving during the winter months calls for some extra preparation and know-how. Here are some things to keep in mind so you and your vehicle are ready to roll — safely.
Get your car ready
Is your vehicle safe for winter travel? The Massachusetts Department of Transportation recommends that you have a mechanic check the following:
- Ignition, fuel, and exhaust systems
- Belts, brakes, and fluid levels (including oil, antifreeze, and wiper fluid)
- Windshield wiper blades
- Tire tread and pressure
- Snow tires
- Battery and lights
Make a safety kit
It’s important to be prepared. The National Safety Council says you should keep these items in your car:
- A fully charged cellphone
- An ice scraper, a snow brush, and a shovel
- Extra antifreeze and windshield washer fluid
- A properly inflated spare tire, a wheel wrench, and a tripod jack
- Jumper cables
- A bag of cat litter (to aid tire traction if you get stuck)
- Reflective triangles or a colored cloth to attach to your antenna to help emergency services locate you
- A flashlight with extra batteries
- A first aid kit
- A blanket, gloves or mittens, socks, and hats
- Long-lasting, high-energy food such as canned nuts, granola, trail mix, and dried fruit
If conditions are snowy or icy, ask yourself, “Do I really need to go out?” Check the weather forecast before leaving for your destination. If you decide to head out and snow or ice is expected, tell someone where you’re going. It’s good to have a full gas tank before trips — especially if you’ll be traveling in rural areas where fewer gas stations may be available.
Keep it clear
Clearing snow off your vehicle can be time-consuming, but it’s a must-do. Snow should be completely cleared from hoods, roofs, bumpers, truck beds, and bedcovers so it doesn’t fall or blow while the vehicle is in motion and affect your visibility and that of drivers behind you. It’s also important to clean snow, ice, or dirt from all sensors, as well as headlights and taillights.
Don’t bulk up
Seat belts need to be worn close to the body to be effective, and puffy coats and other bulky winter wear can interfere. The same goes for children in safety seats.
“In a car crash, fluffy padding immediately flattens out from the force, leaving extra space under the harness,” Healthychildren.org warns. “A child can then slip through the straps and be thrown from the seat.” Dress yourself and your children in lots of thin layers and, if you can, warm your car’s interior ahead of time so you can take off your coat before buckling up. Another tip: Keep baby carriers and booster seats inside the house so they stay warm.
The hazards of winter make safe, defensive driving critical. The Indiana Department of Transportation offers a variety of advice on winter driving:
- Don’t use your cellphone behind the wheel.
- Slow down during snowy and icy conditions.
- Take it slow when approaching intersections, off-ramps, bridges, or shaded areas. Roads that appear dry may actually be slippery and coated with black ice.
- Stay attentive and know what’s going on around you when visibility is limited.
- It takes extra time and distance to bring your vehicle to a stop on slick and snowy roads. Leave extra room between you and the vehicle in front of you.
- Brake early and slowly. If your vehicle begins to slide and you have anti-lock brakes, apply firm, steady pressure to the brake pedal and turn the steering wheel in the direction you want the front of the vehicle to go. If you don’t have anti-lock brakes, turn the steering wheel in the direction you want the front of the vehicle to go, pump the brakes, and when you have gained
- control of the vehicle, gradually apply the brakes, being careful not to lock the wheels.
- Avoid abrupt steering maneuvers and don’t use cruise control. When merging into traffic, take it slow. Sudden movements can cause your vehicle to slide.
Respect the plow
Give snowplows room to do their job. The general guideline when following a plow is to put at least five (and up to 10) car lengths between your vehicle and the plow, leaving more room as your speed increases. Other tips from the Minnesota Department of Transportation:
- Snowplows travel below the posted speed limit. Be patient and allow plenty of time to slow down.
- Don’t try to pass a snowplow. If you must pass, use extreme caution and beware of blowing snow. Snowplow operators have a restricted field of vision and may not see you (even if you can see them).
Stay calm if stranded
If you’re involved in a fender bender and no one is hurt, it’s OK to move your vehicle off to the shoulder and out of the travel lane. But if, despite your efforts, you become involved in a pileup or stranded, the MnDOT recommends you:
- Stay in your vehicle.
- Don’t keep your car running for extended periods — do it just long enough to get warm — and check to make sure the exhaust pipe and radiator are free of snow.
- Don’t work up a sweat by vigorously shoveling snow or trying to reposition your vehicle. This can raise your chances of developing hypothermia and put you at higher risk of a heart attack.
- Help keep your blood circulating by loosening tight clothing, changing positions often, and moving your arms and legs. If you’re traveling with passengers, huddle close together to share warmth. Place your hands between your legs or in your armpits, and carefully remove your shoes to warm your feet.
- Try to stay calm. Remember: You will be found.