Here are some basics to keep you safe when the roads aren’t.
Batteries weaken in cold. After three winters, yours might need replacing. Turn on the headlights, then start the engine. If the lights brighten when the engine is running, your battery’s weak. Make sure windshield washer fluid and engine antifreeze levels are full.
Winter gear should include battery jumper cables, snow brush/ice scraper, cat litter or sand to put under slipping wheels if you’re stuck, small shovel, flashlight and batteries, phone charger, drinking water and snacks. Consider taking a container for bathroom use in case you get stuck inside the car. Keep plenty of fuel in the tank in case you must run the engine to stay warm during delays. All-season tires will handle light snow. For heavier snow, use snow tires or tire chains.
Clean the inside and outside of the windshield and rear window. Defrost and deice the windshield before you drive instead of hoping the defroster will handle it as you drive. Wipe snow and slush off your headlights.
Keep your brake lights and turn signals as snow-free as possible. Use your headlights in daytime to make your vehicle stand out from the drab winter background. Have reflective triangles and/or a reflective vest to wear if you get stuck and need to exit the car for help.
Trying to start too quickly, even with all-wheel drive or traction control, can leave you stuck in place. Abruptly changing speeds — up or down — can cause the tires to slip and spin.
Your car or truck probably has antilock brakes (ABS). They keep the wheels from skidding under hard braking. That lets you keep steering while stopping. If you were taught to pump the brakes, 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. Not intuitive, perhaps, so practice at low speeds in an empty parking lot or on a long driveway.
Avoid skid row
If the back end of the car or truck begins to slide sideways on a slippery surface, turn the steering wheel the same direction as the back end is moving. If it’s dancing out to the left, turn the wheel to the left; if right, turn right. Otherwise you’ll turn the skid into a spin. Antiskid control, common on most cars, helps, but it can’t prevent all slick-road skids.
Blankets or small candles in containers can warm the inside of the car if you’re stranded. If you use candles, open a window slightly because candles consume oxygen and emit poisonous carbon dioxide. If you keep the engine running to stay warm, also open a couple of windows a bit for fresh air in case there’s an exhaust-system leak — also poison — that could seep into the car’s interior.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 22, 2016. It has been updated with a video.