Driving in any season is risky, but driving in winter weather can be downright treacherous, especially if you have a job that requires traveling in all road conditions. Before you get behind the wheel, take time to prepare. Follow these life-saving tips to keep your winter commutes as safe as possible.
Winterize your vehicle.
Schedule a tune-up with your mechanic to check for any leaks, worn hoses, and any other parts that need repairing or replaced. Ask about recalls, and do a little research yourself by visiting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s current list of recalls. If anything on your vehicle has been recalled, have it replaced immediately or as soon as possible.
Specifically, make sure these are maintained or replaced if needed:
- Car battery – tighten cable connections, check voltage, amps and reserve capacity
- Headlights, taillights, brake lights and turn signals
- Windshield wipers and blades – fill washer fluid reservoir, replace worn wiper blades
- Front and rear defrosters
- Tires – make sure you’re using the right tires for your vehicle and road conditions.
Stock emergency supplies.
Having some essential items stored in your car could mean the difference between life and death if you happen to get stranded. Some things you should have on hand at all times, such as a good spare tire, jack, tire tool, pressure gauge, flashlight, flares, warning triangles and jumper cables.
For winter driving, you should also stow these items:
- Small snow shovel, broom and ice scraper
- Kitty litter or sand for traction if you’re stuck in the snow
- Extra blankets
- Tow and tire chains
- Extra wiper fluid and antifreeze
- Water and non-perishable snacks
For every trip, make sure your cell phone is fully charged. Make sure you have a charger that can plug into your cigarette lighter, or bring a portable charger. Pack extra doses of necessary medications to avoid possible medical emergencies.
Keep your children safe and warm.
Protect your most precious cargo. All children under the age of 13 should ride in the backseat with proper child restraints. Review the NHTSA’s guidelines to make sure you’re using the safest booster or convertible car seat for your child’s age and size. Check for any recalls and replace your child’s restraint if needed.
Keep these items on hand, depending on your child’s age:
- Extra winter clothing – hats, gloves, socks, snow or hiking boots
- Small, vehicle-safe space heater
- Sleeping bags
- Water and snacks
- Extra diaper bag stocked with diapers, wipes, formula, bottles, etc.
- Trash bags and toilet paper
- Coloring books, crayons, mp3 player, earbuds, books, hard candy, etc. to keep them occupied if you get stranded
Drive with extra caution.
Before setting out, be as well-rested as you can. Since winter driving requires an extra level of alertness, it’s extremely important to stay awake at the wheel. The NHTSA estimates that an annual 83,000 vehicle accidents are caused by driver fatigue.
Check local weather conditions to be prepared for incoming snowfall or ice. If at all possible, wait until road conditions improve before you drive. But if you must be on the road, remove all ice and snow from your vehicle, including lights, mirrors and windows. Make sure your gas tank is full or close to full. When warming up your vehicle, don’t keep the engine running in a closed garage. Every year, nearly 20,000 to 30,000 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning, which can come from car exhaust.
When you get behind the wheel, put on your seatbelt, and make sure any passengers are properly restrained as well. Avoid all distractions. Plan your route so you won’t have to take your eyes off the road to look at your GPS. Stay off your cell phone – don’t talk or text! Avoid eating, putting on makeup, and listening to loud music or other audio content.
On the road, slow down, and don’t use cruise control. Don’t follow too closely behind other vehicles to allow more braking time in case you need it. Keep your headlights on in poor visibility conditions. Watch out for ice, especially on overpasses and bridges. If you start to skid, don’t panic. Take your foot off the gas and steer in the direction you want the vehicle to go. Don’t slam on the brakes or accelerate. If you cannot see the road in a snowstorm or conditions become too hazardous to continue, seek shelter, and wait it out if possible.
What if you become stranded?
If you get stuck due to road conditions, an accident or a vehicle breakdown, try to pull off the road and out of traffic. Stay calm and call for roadside assistance or 911. If you’re in an unpopulated area, unless you know there’s a busy road or building nearby, stay in your car with the doors locked. Be cautious if a stranger stops to offer help. Crack the window and ask him/her to call for emergency roadside service. If your only alternative is to accept his/her help, ask for identification, phone number and address. Write this down, along with where you are going and why and leave this in your vehicle.
While you wait for help, take these steps to stay safe and to alert other drivers and first responders:
- Turn on your emergency flashers.
- Watch for oncoming traffic while setting out warning triangles 100 – 300 feet behind your vehicle. The bright orange color will alert approaching traffic by day, while the red reflectors make it visible at night.
- Clear your tailpipe of any snow and ice to prevent buildup of carbon monoxide in the vehicle’s interior.
- Start your car if possible and run the heater occasionally.
- Stay warm, and try not to overexert yourself if attempting to push or dig your way out of the snow. Excessive sweat can cause loss of precious body heat.
- On a very busy road, it may be safer to exit the vehicle. Turn on emergency flashers, exit the car on the side away from oncoming traffic and seek shelter as far from the road as possible (preferably in a gas station or other public building) until help arrives.
By following these winter driving tips, you’ll be well prepared to venture out despite the road conditions. To help you remember, print out this brochure from AAA, review it before every winter season, and keep a copy in your car for reference when you need it.