Winter can mean cold temperatures, snow, ice, fog, and wind.
If you need to drive your car when conditions are bad, it would be good to prepare yourself and your vehicle for the experience. Therefore, I will share some ideas and techniques that I have learned (often the hard way) to help you preserve your health and general welfare.
The best thing?
Winter driving preparedness and safety are not that complicated if you follow the rules and guidelines. I'll explain in a minute.
First, let's see what you can expect to happen and what routine preventive checks you can make.
Routine Winter Preparedness Checks
Winter brings out the worst in automobiles. As the weather gets colder, you will quickly find out if anything is weak. Now is the time to get the car in good shape, so it doesn't fail when you need it the most.
- Check the antifreeze. The radiator can freeze even while driving.
- Check the wipers and fill the non-freezing washer solution.
- Check the heater and defroster.
- Check the battery and alternator.
- Check all hoses and belts.
- Tune-up the engine.
- Check the headlights.
- If you don't have a garage, consider installing an engine block heater.
- Check the tires. Good tread is a must.
- Make sure you have a spare tire, jack, and lug wrench.
People usually get into trouble on the road in winter due to the failure of the car itself. Poor tires are a significant factor. The so-called all-season radials are OK if all of your driving is on cleared and sanded streets. However, if canyon, back road, or off road driving is what you had in mind, I would highly recommend some town and country tread.
A good tread means the difference between getting there or not.
You can't get moving at all if the car won't start. That's where the engine tune-up, battery shape, and engine heater come in. It's frustrating when you have to be at work, and the car won't start. If your battery is nearing its expected lifespan, replace it now and not on the day you can't get started. Save yourself some frustration.
Even if you have done all of the checks mentioned earlier, most of us experience that day when we are stuck on the road for some reason.
The truth is, we often think that someone will stop and help.
Don't forget that you may die of hypothermia before that happens.
I was broken down in Dry Lake one time, so I opened the hood and got back into the car to wait for someone to stop. It was dark, windy, 15 degrees. Pretty soon, I was shivering, so I got out and tried to flag someone down. Nothing was working.
I'll bet at least 200 cars had passed me up as though I didn't exist. By now, I was getting cold and decided that I would go run down to Sherwood Hills (run, because hopefully, that would generate some much-needed heat).
Unfortunately, I was already in the early stages of hypothermia. Fortunately for me, a young couple saw me running down the road and stopped. Rescued! God bless those people and to ____ with the 200.
This brings me to my next topic.
Get a Survival Kit
Get a basic survival kit and keep it in the car. While you are at it, make sure you have a good spare tire, lug wrench, and jack. The survival kit should contain the following items:
- Blanket or sleeping bag.
- High energy food.
This is the bare minimum and will allow you to stay in your car, out of the wind, and avoid hypothermia while you wait for help or a tow truck to arrive. If it is possible to run the engine, remember to open a window a couple of inches to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Here are some other items that may be useful.
- Insulated coveralls
- Warm gloves
- Any medication that you are on and must take on schedule
- A small first aid kit
- A small tool kit with which you may make minor repairs
- Hat or stocking cap
- Moon boots or insulated footwear
- Bag of salt
- Jumper cables
- A gallon of gas in an approved and tightly sealed container
- Tow rope
- Tire chains
- Ice scraper and snow brush
The gloves, coveralls, hats, and boots will come in handy if you need to change a tire or decide to walk for help. The salt should be in a container that won't leak salt inside your car because it is corrosive.
If you find yourself stuck against the curb and can't back out, a handful of salt behind each drive wheel will get you moving. Tow ropes used to be handy when cars got stuck, and there was something to hook onto, but the new cars don't have a convinient place to hook up. You could have a mechanic bolt some hooks to the car that would serve that purpose.
Do you think that is too much junk to keep in your car? Nonsense. Most women carry nearly that much in their purses.
Should you find yourself stuck in cold weather, the recommendation is to stay in the car and keep warm while you wait for help. Raising the hood is the recognized HELP signal. However, as I mentioned earlier, it may be a long wait, so please keep a sleeping bag and some candy bars in your car.
People freeze to death every year, trying to walk for help in cold weather. The human body cannot generate enough heat to stay ahead of the losses. The first symptom is uncontrolled shivering. If you find yourself in this condition, it is your last chance to do something about it. The following symptom is loss of brain function, at which point you lose the ability to think or help yourself. Now your only chance for survival is that someone will find you and warm you up before you cache it in.
HYPOTHERMIA IS NO JOKE; IT IS DEADLY SERIOUS
OK, now that the car is in shape and the survival kit is in place, let's hit the road.
Two things make winter driving much different than summer driving. They are:
- Loss of traction;
- Loss of visibility.
Rain, snow, ice, and fog do an excellent job of obscuring our vision. Of course, we can keep the lights, wipers, and defrosters in shape to help us out with that problem, but still, our visibility will be severely restricted at times.
The recommendation here is don't overdrive your visibility. That means you must be able to stop before you hit an object that suddenly appears in your lane. Also, keep in mind that if the roads are slick, it will take much longer to stop than on dry roads.
Every year we have major multi-car pileups. What causes pileups? Overdriving your visibility. The cure? SLOW DOWN! When driving in fog, some say that they don't slow down for fear that someone will zoom up on them and rear-end them.
Maybe so, but consider this. If you are traveling 35 MPH in a fog and someone comes up on you too fast to avoid hitting you, he will try to avoid you by braking or steering around you. Either way, he will most likely slow down considerably before he hits you. At the moment of impact, the speed difference may be from 0 to maybe 15 MPH. This may pop your head back against the headrest, but your chances of survival are excellent, and you can very likely keep the car under control.
On the other hand, you are cruising at 50 MPH, and all of a sudden, there is an 18 wheeler sideways in the road, no way to steer around it, so you hit the brakes. By the time you hit the truck, you may have slowed to 40 MPH, but the collision is going to cause major mayhem to you and your car. Then you also run the risk of getting hit by the next driver who is also overdriving his visibility. Take your pick.
I will repeat it: SLOW DOWN. Don't overdrive your visibility.
When roads are slick, you must do everything gently:
- Accelerate slowly;
- Brake gently;
- Turn gently.
Sudden changes cause the tires to lose their grip on the road, resulting in losing control. As you begin to move, accelerate gently so that your tires don't spin. If you tromp it down, your tires will spin out and burn a hole, but you won't move much.
When braking, if you hit it hard, the tires lock up, and you not only don't stop, but you lose steering control. This is the thing that gets inexperienced drivers every year at the first snowstorm. Don't freeze up on the brakes! If you feel traction break let up, then brake again more gently.
The trick is to break just hard enough that you don't lose traction. Then, when approaching a planned stop, such as a stop sign, slow down well in advance to avoid the need for heavy braking.
How to Avoid Skids
Now let's talk about skids. A skid is caused when the drive wheels lose their traction. Or even worse when all wheels lose their grip. In a skid, you have to do some quick remedial steering.
Steer the car in the direction you need to go to stay in your lane. At the same time, you need to correct the condition that caused the skid. For example, too aggressive acceleration will cause the drive wheels to spin and put you into a skid.
The remedy here is to let off the gas enough to let the tires regain traction. Be careful not to let off so much that the engine slows the tires to the point of going too slow, or that will cause a skid also. Letting off the accelerator too quickly may cause the car to skid. The remedy here is to steer, and at the same time, give it a little more gas. Avoid the impulse to hit the brakes, as this will compound the problem and send you into a spin—correct a skid with judicious use of the steering wheel and accelerator.
Four-wheel skids are usually encountered when you go into a curve moving too fast. These are very scary if you are turning toward the right because you begin to move out of your lane into the lane of oncoming traffic. In this case, ease off the accelerator and steer gently toward your lane.
At first, you won't get any response from the steering wheel, but as the car slows, the steering will respond. So if you save it, take a deep breath and slow down.
Four-wheel skids are also caused by heavy braking. Be gentle.
Hills are often a source of frustration to drivers when the roads are snow-covered. Good tires are a must, though you can gain much with driving techniques. As you approach a hill, pull the gear shift lever into the 2nd range.
Accelerate a little as you do so. You don't want the car to shift halfway up the hill, or you will lose it. Now accelerate a little more, just enough to feel the tires begin to spin. This may cause you to skid a little so be alert with the steering wheel.
Now very gently ease up on the accelerator, just to the point that the tires cease to spin. Hold it steady there and continue. If you again feel the tires begin to spin, ease off the accelerator ever so gently. If you quickly let up, you will lose it.
The trick here is to apply just enough gas to keep the tires right on the verge of spinning, but not spinning. Your pace may slow as you go up the hill but, if you get to the top when other drivers don't, who cares?
If you need to start from a dead stop on a hill, accelerate very gently and try to keep the tires from spinning. This will usually get you going, but there are always those times when it won't. Sometimes, when the snow is right fresh, you can get the tires spinning and burn down to traction, but forget it if the snow is packed.
Black Ice on the Road
Beware of Black Ice. Freeway overpasses are often covered with ice even when the rest of the road is bare and dry. The reason is that the cold air gets under the bridge and keeps the road surface frozen, whereas the rest of the road gets some heat from the earth so it will melt and dry.
An overpass that is also on a curve should be approached very carefully. This is one of those situations that can put you into a four-wheel skid. Areas that are shaded all day are also often covered with black ice. Then there are those times that the whole road may be covered with black ice. This may be after a rain when the temperature suddenly drops, or sometimes the rain freezes as it hits the road. Be alert. Be careful. Slow down.
Leave early. Allow yourself more time to get to your destination so that you won't feel rushed. Watch the weather forecast so that you can get up earlier if snow is expected next morning. By leaving early, you may also avoid some traffic. With the car in good shape and good driving techniques, it is almost always possible to get to your destination. It is the other drivers that so often cause us trouble. Be alert. Allow more space between the next driver than you usually do on dry roads.
After the snow, find a deserted parking lot or empty road and cut a few shines. This is an excellent way to get the car's feel on slick roads, and you can practice steering out of a skid, stopping, accelerating, etc. Then, at 20 MPH, hit the brakes hard and see what happens. In this way, you can experience all these things without taking your life in your hands and learn the techniques to help you get safely to your destination.
Be prepared. Be alert. Be safe.