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2008 HowStuffWorks Learn how to keep you and your passengers safe on the road this winter. See more car safety pictures.

How to Prepare Your Car for Winter

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Just as you dress yourself in extra layers and winterize your house to protect it from the cold, your car needs extra preparation to make it through the winter as well. But getting ready is only half the battle. Winter driving conditions also mandate driving differently. Snow and ice need to be taken s­eriously and prepared for.

­Hopefully,­ by the time winter's first storm hits, most people are prepared with a closet full of heavy coats and boots. This winter, make sure your car is as prepared as you are. Going the extra mile by getting your vehicle ready for winter and learning what it takes to drive safely through ice and snow could save your life.

­In this article, we'll tell you what your car needs to make it through winter, what to pack before you take a winter road trip, how to manage snowy and icy conditions, and what to do in the event of an accident.

 

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Preparing for Winter Driving

There's no getting around winter. Instead of dreading it, prepare for it. The changing of the seasons is a great time to check out what your car needs to gear up for cold, wet, winter driving conditions. Do this before the first flake falls because small problems you ignored during warmer months could grow worse, leaving you stranded when the temperature plummets. A few simple tips could keep your car running all winter long.

  • Take your car to a mechanic and check out the following: battery, antifreeze level, thermostat, heater, brakes, and defroster.
  • Check to make sure your tires have adequate tread. If the treads are worn, replace them. Better yet, exchange them for a set of snow tires such as Bridgestone Blizzaks, which have treads that provide better traction and are equipped to handle extreme winter driving conditions.
  • Make a visual inspection of your vehicle's lights. Make sure the front and rear lights are operational, especially the car's flashing hazard lights.
  • Often in the winter, the windshield wiper fluid may freeze. Instead of toughing it out until spring, exchange the fluid with one made especially to spray in freezing conditions.
  • Similarly, purchase winter wiper blades to cut through snow and ice instead of using regular ones throughout the year.
  • Check the spray nozzles of your windshield-washer system. Sometimes, they get blocked by wax or debris. Use a needle or pin to clear blocked nozzles.
  • Road salt commonly used during winter can damage your car's paint. Rinsing it off every once in a while can help, but a good wash and coat of fresh wax will go a long way in preventing corrosion and keep your vehicle looking like new.

These tips will prepare your car for a winter drive, but check the next page to see what you'll need to pack for yourself.

Be prepared for an emergency. Store a kit of emergency items in your trunk.

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Packing Your Car for Winter Trips

A winter accident could leave you stuck on the side of the road. Packing your car with a few essentials will help keep you safe and ready for whatever conditions pop up on your trip.

  • Keep the gas tank at least half full throughout the winter. This will reduce condensation, making your vehicle easier to start on cold mornings.
  • If you have a cell phone, make sure it's charged and bring it with you. A car charger for the phone is also a smart device to keep in the car.
  • Always store a snow/ice scraper and a shovel in your vehicle. A first aid kit is another must-have item to keep on hand. It should include all the usual items plus winter extras like flashlights, a fresh supply of batteries, blankets, matches, extra clothes, bottled water, and non-perishable snacks. Peanuts and granola bars are good protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods.
  • For rear-wheel drive vehicles, you might want to keep a small bag of sand in your trunk to create traction under the tires if you get stuck. The bulk of a vehicle's weight is the engine, in the front of the car. If the car is driven by it's rear wheels instead of its front wheels, the heavy front end and light back end makes the car prone to slide around an ice- or snow-covered road.
  • Clear off your car each time you go out for maximum visibility. Don't forget the hood, roof, and your head and taillights. Sure it takes a few extra moments, but it's better than dealing with an accident due to poor outward visibility. Also, leftover ice chunks from the roof or hood of the vehicle may become hazardous to yourself and those on the road around you while driving.

On the next page, learn how to stay in control when the roads turn dangerous and what to do if you go off the road.

Winter tires have special treads designed to help you navigate through snow and ice.

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Driving Tips for Snowy and Icy Roads

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) car accidents are the number one cause of death during winter storms. Defensive driving is important. Learning how to maneuver your vehicle when confronted with winter's elements could mean the difference between winding up in a snow bank on the side of the road and arriving safely at your destination.

  • Before you go, listen to the radio for announcements about accidents, road closings, and road advisories. Call your local highway patrol if this information is not available on the radio.
  • Plan your route ahead of time to avoid any roads that become dangerous during bad weather. If a road is closed or blocked, do not attempt to continue on this route.
  • Let someone know your route so if you do become stranded, your family can let authorities know where to start looking.
  • Be aware that bridges and overpasses freeze first. Slow down before reaching them and avoid sudden changes in speed or direction.
  • Use gentle impulses while driving: accelerate gently, turn slowly, and brake carefully and early. Avoid unexpected quick movements that could put you in a spin by leaving ample room between you and the next car. Anticipate turns, stops, and lane changes well before they occur.
  • Conversely, don't go too slow. The car will need some momentum to be able to push through heavier snow without getting stuck.
  • Steer clear of trucks. They are heavier than cars and need considerably longer stopping distances. Their tires also tend to spray snow and rain into parallel lanes, further hindering your visibility.
  • If you have a vehicle with four- or all-wheel drive, don't get overconfident and rely on its abilities to get you out of a problem. The traction and force created by all four wheels driving instead of two helps you get going from a stop, but does not assist your vehicle's braking ability. In fact, AWD- and 4WD-equipped vehicles are heavier than 2WD vehicles and require more time and braking power to come to a stop.
  • See and be seen. Always keep your lights on while driving through rain, snow, and fog.

Winter Car Accidents

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Conditions like snowstorm whiteouts, which hamper visibility, and "black ice," a near-invisible layer of ice caused by snow melting and freezing again, often make winter driving unpredictable and dangerous. If you find yourself in a skid, steer carefully and avoid overreacting to keep control of the car. In cars with antilock brakes systems (ABS), the brakes are automatically pumped for you in a skid situation. You should feel the brake pedal pulsating. If you're driving a car without ABS, apply easy pressure in a pumping motion to the brakes. In the event of an accident, remain calm, follow these safety tips, and call for help.

  • Try to get to the right side of the road as far away from traffic as possible.
  • Stay in your car with your seatbelt on. Put the hazard lights on so others on the road can see you.
  • If a flare is available, use that to call attention to your vehicle. Tying a bright piece of cloth to the antenna works as well.
  • If you get stuck in snow, straighten the wheels and accelerate slowly. Avoid spinning the tires and digging yourself in deeper. Rock the vehicle back and forth, using its weight and momentum to get unstuck.
  • If you can't get going, run the engine only a few minutes at a time to stay warm. Periodically crack a window to get fresh air. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow so harmful carbon monoxide fumes don't drift back through the car's interior.

Agencies like AAA and FEMA recommend staying off the roads if the weather is too hazardous in your area. Not knowing how to maneuver your vehicle ­through a winter storm jeopardizes you, your passengers, and other drivers sharing the road with you. Getting your car ready for winter and anticipating and avoiding dangerous circumstances will help keep you safely on the road and in control.