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Winter Driving Tips

Slow and steady are the keys to traveling in snow and ice


En español | If you were to read many lists of winter driving tips, you would park the car and not venture out, terrified to be in a horrible accident or trapped in some Siberian-style wasteland.

Yes, winter — at least in areas with snow and ice — is a challenge on the road. And you need to pay attention to the weather reports to be sure no howler is coming.

But in more-or-less normal winter weather, driving is more about care and attention than fear and loathing. In case the worst does happen, do load the car with special gear.

As author Lee Child and his action hero Jack Reacher say, “Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.”

In that spirit, here are some basics to keep you safe when the roads aren’t.

Good-to-know winter hacks

1. Battery testing is often free. The largest of the auto parts stores nationwide — including AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts and O’Reilly Automotive — will test your battery and charging system for free and give you a printout of its status.

Ask your favorite parts retailer. The store may offer it to stay competitive and get your business if you do need a new battery.

2. Socks warm more than your feet. Keep an extra pair of big socks in the car in winter.

If you become stranded, you can use them to cover your windshield wipers overnight so they’re not iced into uselessness. Heck, go for two pair: You never know when the socks you’re wearing might get wet as you try to get out of a jam.

3. Floor mats provide traction, too. They can be shoved in front of a stuck tire to give a little grip that could get you going.

Those long side-to-side rear mats laid out lengthwise under a no-go tire are especially helpful.

Don’t have somebody place it while the tire is spinning. Halt. Then tuck the mats in place.

Using them that way could damage the mats — less likely if you turn them upside down — but if you get on your way simply and quickly without waiting and paying for a tow truck, do you care?

Get ready for the cold

Now, not the dead of winter, is when you should get your car checked or do it yourself.

Make sure the tires have enough tread to grip in snow.

In this case, use a quarter, not a penny, to measure depth. If the top of George Washington’s head is barely visible, you’re OK for the moment, but start shopping.

The distance between the edge of a quarter and the top of Washington’s head is 4/32 inch. On a penny, the distance between the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head and the edge is 2/32 inch, the sign of totally worn-out tread.

Top off your vehicle’s fluids. Windshield washer fluid and engine antifreeze are two you can check yourself.

Brake fluid, power steering fluid and transmission fluid might better be left to a pro.

See that the wipers have good or new rubber blades.

Try the heater. If it’s weak in good weather, it won’t stand the strain when the going is tough.

Check the battery to make sure it’s strong enough and holds a charge.

Batteries weaken over time and in cold. After three winters, yours might need replacing.

Use the correct engine oil for winter. This is probably not a worry.

Most vehicles now have year-round oil that’s typically rated 5W-30 or 0W-20. The “W” is for winter and the low number means it is light oil that flows easily in cold temperatures, making it easier for your engine to crank over and start and to be fully lubricated the instant you turn the key.

The owner’s manual will tell you the correct specification. If you had your oil changed recently, check paperwork from the shop to be sure the right oil was put in.

If it’s been awhile, maybe now’s a good time to get an oil change and ensure you’re using the right oil.

Get set to travel

Before you set out, load up the car with items not always needed in fairer weather.

Assemble winter gear, including battery jumper cables, cat litter or sand to put under slipping wheels if you’re stuck, drinking water and snacks, a flashlight and batteries, a phone charger, a small shovel and a snow brush plus ice scraper. A small candle can throw off a good amount of heat inside a stranded car.

Consider taking a container and tissues for bathroom use in case you get stuck inside the car.

Pack a couple of blankets or those zip-open sleeping bags. A cozy for the pet you’re taking along is smart.

Keep plenty of fuel in the gas tank in case you must run the engine to stay warm during delays. You need not run it continuously, only enough to put some warmth back into the passenger compartment.

Take snow boots, too, to avoid getting wet if you have to step outside the car. Getting wet can drop your body temperature dangerously.

We’re assuming you have winter coats, hats and gloves along for the ride.

Carry a long red or orange piece of fabric to tie to your antenna or door handle to show you need help if you get stuck.

Reflective triangles to place outside the vehicle and a reflective vest to wear also will help if you get stuck and need to leave the car for help.

All-season tires will handle light snow. For heavier snow, use snow tires or tire chains.

cars stuck on a road during a blizzard

MarianVejcik/Getty Images

Go with confidence

After a snow or ice storm is not the time to jump in your car and head out with only a porthole-sized patch cleared away.

Be sure both the inside and outside of your windshield and rear window are clear.

Bring in fresh air. Don’t use the heating and air-conditioning system’s “recirc” setting.

Recirculating the air inside the vehicle fogs up the inside of the glass. That setting is meant to heat or cool the car fast or avoid the sooty bus exhaust in traffic, but it’s only for short-term use.

Get all the snow and ice off your vehicle. Otherwise it will avalanche onto your windshield when you slow down or fly off while you drive and cover the windshield of the car behind.

Also, keep your brake lights and turn signals as free of snow as possible.

Use your headlights in daytime to make your vehicle stand out from the drab winter background.

Speed up and slow down slowly on slick roads. Making sudden movements can set your tires spinning or trigger a skid even if your car has all of the latest safety features.

Don’t stop while going uphill. You not only might fail to get started again, you also might start sliding backward uncontrollably toward that intersection at the bottom of the hill that’s so packed with cars that they can’t get out of the way.

Don’t have false confidence in traction control, all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. The features are helpful, sure, but hardly infallible.

As we’ve heard the old hands say at four-wheel-drive events we’ve attended, “Sometimes all four-wheel-drive does is get you one car length farther before you get stuck.”

And just because you can accelerate better doesn’t mean you can stop more quickly.

All passenger vehicles from the 2012 model year and newer have antilock braking systems (ABS) as part of an electronic stability control package that helps to keep top-heavy vehicles such as SUVs and pickups from rolling over. ABS started to become standard on many models in the 1990s.

ABS keeps the wheels from skidding under hard braking. That lets you continue steering while stopping.

If you were taught to pump the brakes when you first started driving, forget that with ABS. Safety folks preach, “Stomp, stay, steer.” Stomp — hard — on the brake pedal. Stay on the pedal, hard, despite vibrations or kickback.

Steer around the danger instead of crashing into it. Perhaps this is not intuitive, so practice at low speeds in an empty parking lot or on a long driveway.

Something else that’s counterintuitive: For better traction, shut off the traction control or electronic stability control. Try it at a low speed only if you can’t get out of a slippery spot where you’ve parked.

Traction control, one part of the electronic stability control system, and electronic stability control use a car’s brakes to regulate wheel speed. When you’re trying to pull off a patch of ice, you probably will do better if you can let the wheels spin just a little.

Run the engine to keep warm if you do get stuck, but first check that the tailpipes aren’t buried in snow or clogged with it. And keep a couple of windows down a bit when the engine’s running to be sure you get fresh air to counteract even tiny exhaust leaks that could fill the inside with poisonous carbon monoxide.

Freelance writer James R. Healey was auto writer and columnist for USA Today.

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