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Spring Driving Tips to Help You Navigate Changing Conditions

Time to check your tires and avoid new potholes

spinner image pothole in the middle of a street
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Springtime weather differs across the country, so driving conditions and cautions differ, too.

"The things you're looking out for in one state might be different than in another,” AAA spokesman Andrew Gross says.

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If your spring is rainy, a common situation, consider key equipment first. If it's not up to snuff, you're swimming upstream from the beginning.

Check your tires

Tires are your only connection with the road. Be sure the tread is deep enough to channel away water on the road instead of letting it build up under tires.

A good measure is a quarter inserted in the groove with George Washington's head down. If you can see the top of his head, the tread is less than one-eighth of an inch, and you should replace the tire soon.

The penny test, seeing all of Abraham Lincoln's head above the tread, means tread depth is less than one-sixteenth of an inch. New tires have about five times that much tread.

Flunking the penny test requires immediate attention: Forty-two states have laws requiring tires to have at least one-sixteenth inch of tread, AAA says. Idaho's and California's laws require at least a thirty-second of an inch of tread, and six states have no requirements.

From a safety standpoint, too little tread can cause tires to float uncontrollably on the pavement surface, called hydroplaning. And the newer the tire the better.

"On average, new tires have an improved stopping distance of nearly 90 feet, more than the length of a semitrailer truck,” according to a 2018 study from motorists’ nonprofit AAA, which changed its name in 1997 from the American Automobile Association.

Tires age 6 and older, no matter what their tread depth, need to be replaced because the rubber starts to deteriorate, manufacturers say. To find out your tire's birthday, look below the DOT (Department of Transportation) often embossed on the inside of the tire where it's not easy to see. Tires for vehicles of less than 10,000 pounds also have part of the code on the outside, where you can take a look more readily.

The final four digits of the code, which has been 13 characters since 2015, are its date of manufacture, based on the week of the year, and last two digits of the year itself.

Assess your windshield wipers

Wiper blades are key to vision. Blades are easy to overlook — until you need them to see through rain and muddy road spray from other cars. Make sure they're not loose on the wiper arms and aren't split.

“On average, new tires have an improved stopping distance of nearly 90 feet, more than the length of a semi-trailer truck.”

— AAA 2018 study

Clean the blades with a paper towel or cloth soaked in windshield washer fluid or a mild detergent. Then wash the windshield itself, taking care to dislodge dried bugs, road grime and sap.

Take a test swipe while sitting in your driveway after wetting your windshield. If you have spots where your wiper blades are brittle with age, leaving patterns on your glass and not merely holding onto debris, it's time to spring for a new set.

Don't forget to do the same test on any rear window with wipers.

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Then, be vigilant

If those foundational items are OK, remember these tips:

• Slow down on slick roads. Slick doesn't always mean icy. Hail can not only damage vehicles from above, but also act like ice when it covers a roadway.

Rain is its own safety hazard. When a shower begins, the water lifts a film of oil and other slick substances from the road, creating dicey going.

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Or maybe the spring storm is over, but some leaves left over from fall or mud have washed onto the road. Drop your speed and leave more distance between you and the car in front in case of sudden stops.

Your tires can play a part in the stopping distance you'll need, but they're not the only factor to take into consideration.

• Share the road. Warm weather and that extra hour of sun from daylight saving time brings out bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Some of them will be children without a good idea of their proper place on a street or sidewalk.

• Understand the effects of medications on driving. For many people, spring means seasonal allergies.

Over-the-counter allergy medicines can have side effects or interact with other substances to diminish your driving ability. Other medicines that help combat diarrhea, such as Imodium with an active ingredient of loperamide, can cause drowsiness.

Opioid pain pills can slow reaction times and contribute to accidents, often making the driver wander out of the traffic lane into another vehicle.

• Go around potholes if possible. Deep potholes can throw your car out of alignment or worse, forcing you to buy a new tire before it wears out or potentially pay for a new wheel.

You may be able to file a damage claim. But laws differ from city to city and state to state, and you'll likely have to prove negligence on the government's part.

• Avoid driving through large puddles. Whether you're facing a sudden gully washer or flooding after sustained rains, driving through water is not a good idea.

Even on a familiar street, the unexpected water could have opened up new potholes, deepened existing ones, moved manhole covers or taken out sections of asphalt in their entirety. Add in the possibility of a current that you can't gauge from the driver's seat, and you could end up in a situation you can't get out of without being rescued.

Driving through a small amount of standing water still can impair your brakes, cloud your vision or cause you to hydroplane.

• Keep up to speed on severe weather. Large swaths of the Midwest and South average more than two dozen tornadoes a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And spring is prime time for the twisters.

If you're driving when you see a funnel cloud or hear about a tornado warning for the area where you're on the road, you're in an extremely risky situation, according to Roger Edwards, lead forecaster of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. If the tornado is visible but far away, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at a right angle from it.

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But if you're already caught in high winds and flying debris, park your car out of traffic lanes, stay in the car with your seat belt on, lean as much as you can below the windows and cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion.

Don't seek shelter under a bridge or overpass. Only if you can find a spot that's definitely lower than the road should you leave your vehicle and lie face down, Edwards says. Continue to cover the back of your head with your hands.

Editor's note: This story, originally published in January 2010 and updated in March 2015, was further updated to reflect additional tips and interviews.

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