“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or so the classic Andy Williams song goes, referring to the upcoming winter holidays. For better or worse, it’s also among the busiest as far as our nation’s roads are concerned.
Last year the American Automobile Association in Washington, D.C., estimated a whopping 91.9 million people ventured 50 miles or more from home by car over the two-week period encompassing Christmas and New Year’s. On the down side, the AAA figures more than 800,000 of those travelers subsequently found themselves stranded with problems ranging from dead batteries and flat tires to having slid off an icy road and into a snow-packed embankment.
Experts advise holiday revelers to ensure both their vehicles and their driving abilities are prepared for the worst Mother Nature has to offer. This is especially crucial among those living in warmer climates that may be headed north to visit friends and relatives and are unaccustomed to the rigors of winter travel.
“Winter driving can be intimidating and hazardous, and is something that you really do need to prepare for," says Anant Gandhi, product manager for winter tires at Bridgestone Americas. "It's not just about having the right equipment; it's also important that drivers understand how to respond correctly to various winter hazards. We all have a responsibility to make sure we prepare not just our vehicles, but also ourselves."
When in doubt, the AAA advises motorists have their vehicles thoroughly checked out by an automotive technician and have any necessary repairs or maintenance procedures performed before hitting the highways. At the least, the organization suggests drivers perform their own inspections. Start by opening the hood to check the vehicle’s battery cables for signs of corrosion and to ensure connections are tight. Inspect belts for signs of fraying and hoses for leaks. Make sure headlamps, tail lights, turn signals and emergency flashers are in working order.
It’s a good idea to have the oil changed before embarking on a lengthy road trip for extra protection. Check the level of coolant in the radiator, and if it’s low, replenish it with a 50/50 mix of coolant and water; be sure to have the radiator flushed and filled with fresh coolant every few years. Check the transmission and brake fluid levels, topping off as necessary. Fill the windshield washer tank and carry an extra jug of fluid in the trunk.
If you drive a sporty car that’s equipped with high-performance “summer” tires, it’s prudent to swap them for a set of all-season tires before heading north. If you will be driving in the Snow Belt region – especially if you own a rear-drive car that inherently offers less wet-road traction than a front- or all-wheel-drive model – consider buying a set of deep-grooved snow tires for added grip and control. At least, inspect the tires for uneven and excessive tread wear and make sure they’re inflated according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Once you’ve begun the journey, stay alert for rapidly changing road conditions. Experts suggest keeping the car’s headlamps lit under even moderately adverse conditions to increase visibility and the chance of being seen by other motorists. Likewise, keep the cruise control switched off to maintain control of your vehicle’s acceleration and deceleration at all times.
Keep an eye out for frozen patches, especially on bridges and overpasses which tend to freeze sooner than paved roads. Periodically apply the brakes with moderate pressure under wet, icy or snowy conditions to determine the available traction; modify your driving if the antilock brakes kick in (you’ll see the “ABS” light on your dash) or you feel the vehicle slipping. Slow down as conditions worsen and leave extra room between your car and the traffic ahead.
And finally, consider postponing the drive if the weather looks too treacherous for your motoring skills or your vehicle’s road-holding abilities. It’s always better to arrive late than not at all.