Winter is underway, and in many areas of the country, that means snow, ice and sleet—which make for precarious driving conditions. Severe weather is a factor in nearly half a million collisions each year, according to research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, and contributes to more than 2,000 road fatalities. On top of that, cold weather can do a number on your vehicle.
But that doesn’t mean you and your car need to stay tucked away this winter. With some prep and minor investments, you will both be road-ready in no time. Here’s your checklist for how to stay safe.
Keep windshields ice- and snow-free. Frosty windshields reduce visibility and increase the chances of a collision. Plus, driving with them blocked is illegal in some states and may result in expensive traffic fines. Store a scraper and brush in the car to remove accumulated snow from windows. Don’t forget to clear the roof, headlights and taillights. A spray bottle of deicing fluid—which you can keep in your trunk—can help to save you time and elbow grease. Or you can mix something up yourself with three parts apple cider vinegar and one part water. The acidity in the vinegar prevents ice from forming altogether.
Check your treads. While snow tires are the best bet for winter driving, they’re expensive and may require a trip to a service center for mounting. So, to ensure your all-seasons have enough tread to drive safely over rain, ice and snow, perform a simple penny test by inserting a penny with Abraham Lincoln’s head facing down into the shallowest part of the tread groove. If you can see the top of the former president’s head, the tires are too worn and may not have enough grip for winter road conditions and need to be replaced.
Monitor your tire pressure. Winter cold snaps and lower ambient temperatures often don’t allow tires to build and maintain optimal air pressure. In turn, this can reduce your vehicles’ fuel efficiency, accelerate wear and increase the chances of a collision, according to the National Highway of Transportation Safety Administration. Drivers should proactively monitor tire pressure with a handheld tire pressure gauge and keep quarters handy to feed into those air refilling machines at fueling stations. (Note: You can save your change and find businesses that offer free air.) Another option: Keep a portable air compressor in the car for emergencies.
Keep a clean exterior. Washing your car isn’t just for vanity; it’s part of good auto maintenance. Slushy and wet roads kick up dirt and debris that can obscure cameras and sensors and prevent advanced driver assistance technology—such as automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems—from working properly. Since many automatic car washes don’t clean a vehicle’s undercarriage, drivers should periodically hose the underside of their cars or pay for a hand wash that will remove the salt and chemicals used to keep roads ice-free. Otherwise, your metal parts may get corroded.
Buy a bag of rock salt. Drivers who routinely wake up to snow-covered cars should stash a bag of rock salt in the trunk. In addition to melting snow around the tires quickly, the extra weight can increase rear-wheel traction, which is especially helpful for cars with front-wheel drive. If you don’t want to carry around 50 pounds of salt, nonclumping kitty litter, pieces of carpet or moving blankets help keep tires from spinning and create grip to get you unstuck.
Stock your car with supplies. One of the biggest dangers of getting stuck in the snow is hypothermia. To keep frostbite at bay, pack an emergency bag of warm clothing—such as fleece blankets, hats, ski gloves, old boots and hand warmers for multiple occupants—and stow away a box of energy-dense and nonperishable snacks such as granola bars and sports drinks.
Consolidate your emergency gear. Auto stores sell purpose-built winter driving kits, but chances are good that you already have many of the included products in your garage or home. Fill an old gym bag or backpack with items such as jumper cables or a battery-powered jump-starter, a first aid kit, flashlight and batteries, a cell phone charger, a portable shovel, snow chains and glow sticks.
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Liane Yvkoff is an automotive technology and lifestyle writer who covers alternative powertrains, transportation startups and more. Her work has appeared in print and online publications such as Popular Mechanics and CNET.com.