More Winter Driving Tips
Keep your gas tank close to full.
In the summer, you can take a chance and run down to fumes. But in the winter, if you do get stuck or stranded, the engine will be your only source of heat. And you don’t want to have to worry about conserving fuel and saving the planet right at that moment…you want to stay warm. You can run the engine indefinitely at idle to stay warm-or as long as you have gas. No harm will be done to the engine.
By the way, if you have an old jalopy, we suggest you crack open the window a bit if you are going to be idling the engine. Old jalopies are more likely to suffer from exhaust leaks and rust holes. This may not be a problem while you’re driving because the wind is removing the exhaust as you move forward; but if you’re sitting for a long time while carbon monoxide is slowly leaking into the passenger compartment, well, we could lose another listener. And we’ve only got six left!
Finally, if you are pulled over and stopped in the midst of a humungous snowstorm, be sure to get out periodically and remove snow from behind the tailpipe to keep it unobstructed.
Make sure your windshield washer reservoir is full.
On a snowy or messy day, you can easily go through half a gallon or more of windshield washer fluid trying to keep your windshield clear. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to keep some extra fluid in the trunk in case you run out. And make sure you get the good stuff – stay away from the already-half-frozen stuff outside your local gas station! Even though it may say “Good to Minus 30,” some of these cheap fluids freeze around zero degrees! Even if you buy the good stuff, if you live in a very cold area, you also may need to supplement your windshield washer fluid with some concentrate. The concentrate is available in one-pint bottles and works very well at extremely low temperatures.
A lot of folks ask us about carrying sand in the back of the car.
If you have a rear-wheel-drive vehicle that needs help in the snow, you can put a bag or two of sand behind the rear axle. This extra weight will increase the traction of the rear wheels.
So where, exactly, is the rear axle? Draw an imaginary line between the two rear wheels. That’s the location of the rear axle, which is usually towards the front of the trunk.
However, you can make things worse by putting too much weight too far back. In essence, by weighing down the rear end too much, you “lift up” the front end and lose some steering and braking abilities. We suggest you start with a 20 pound bag as far back in the car as you can get it. Then, go for a ride and see how your car steers and handles.
If you live in western Siberia, Rochester NY, or some place like that, think about adding a block heater to your engine.
That’s a small electric engine heater that plugs in to your home’s wiring via a regular, 120 volt AC plug, at night. It’s almost required equipment for diesel engines in frigid climates. But it can be used on regular gasoline engines, too. And for less than a hundred dollars, you can be virtually guaranteed that your car will start, even on the coldest, butt-freezes-to-the-driver’s-seat mornings. A side benefit of this is that you’ll have instant heat in the morning.
Actually, that may be the greatest benefit! One note of caution: If you do get a block heater, try to remember not to drive off with your car still plugged into your house.
Make sure your rear-window defroster works.
In many states, the law requires that ALL of your windows be clear before you hit the road. Now, you can always use your old Car Talk T-Shirt on the rear windows to wipe off the condensation – as long as you pull over and do it again every ten minutes. But a working rear defroster is a better solution.
Know your car.
Every car has different handling characteristics. You should know what your car can and cannot do in the snow. (Hint: It can’t do any of the things it was doing on the TV commercial that made you buy it.) You should know if you have front, rear, part-time or full-time four-wheel drive; anti-lock brakes; traction control; and stability control. You should know what kind of tires are on the car, and how all those things work and how they help you or don’t help you. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to do a little driving in an empty parking lot on a snowy day just so you know what to expect from your car when you drive on snowy roads.
If you really have to drive in the snow.
That is, if you can’t call in sick or tell the boss you’ll be in later. If you live in an area where it snows a fair amount, you should get four good snow tires. Nothing will make a bigger difference. Because it’s such a pain to get your snow tires remounted and balanced every year, splurge and get yourself four steel rims and mount the snows permanently on those rims. That’ll make the changeover in the fall and spring a snap. By the way, lots of tire shops will offer to store your regular tires over the winter and then store your snow tires in the summer. This is a great deal. The only potential problem is that when they file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they’ll have four of your tires in their basement, so you’ll have to break in and retrieve them.
If you absolutely can’t afford four snow tires, two new snow tires will be better than whatever you have on your car now. Mount them on the wheels that are driven by the engine. For all-wheel drive cars, you really should use four snows.
One question we get asked frequently is, “If I have a front-wheel drive or an all-wheel drive car, do I need to have snow tires?” The answer is, if you really need to drive in the snow, yes. If you really, truly need to get around before the streets are plowed, four top-quality snow tires are the single best thing you can do. And the reason you’d still want them on a car with decent traction is because they not only help get you started, they also increase your traction when you’re braking and turning.
Make sure you have some basic supplies in your car in case you do get stuck.
Invest in a substantial snowbrush and an ice scraper. It’s good to have a shovel and a bag of sand to help with traction, and the aforementioned extra windshield washer fluid. A blanket is a good idea – just in case. If you have any winter clothes you don’t wear anymore, especially an old pair of boots, throw them in the trunk, too.
The last item we always carry? Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. It’s 900 pages, so it’s sure to keep us occupied until help arrives and beyond.
Winter driving emergencies are among the few legitimate uses for a cellular phone.
If you’re cellularly inclined, and you promise not to use it to chat while you smash into other innocent people, a cell phone is certainly a plus if you get stuck.
Clean off your car – entirely!
Once snow or ice does arrive, take some extra time to make sure your car is clean and your visibility is good.
Clear off the entire car, not just a little peephole in the windshield. You need just as much, if not more, visibility in poor conditions because you have to keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians, and every other knucklehead on the road. Make sure every glass surface is clear and transparent by using a snowbrush and/or ice scraper. Your side-view mirrors, and all all lights should be brushed and cleared as well.
Now, if you haven’t been smart enough to do so already, clean the snow off the rest of the car. Why? Because the rest of the snow will either (A) slide off the roof and cover your windshield as you’re slowing down; or (B) fly off onto someone else’s windshield and causing him or her to smash into you. That’s not enough of a reason? Fine. Here’s another: (C) it’s the law in many states that your vehicle must be clear of snow and ice.
Clean your headlights. Even if you think they don’t need it.
It goes without saying, that if your headlights are covered with six inches of sleet, you’re not going to be seeing much past your hood ornament, nor are oncoming drivers going to see you as well. Salt, sand and other wintry crud can dramatically impair the effectiveness of your car’s headlights, even long after the last snowstorm. Whether you’re planning on driving at night or not, take a moment before every winter trip to clean off your headlights. At home, we suggest you have a squeegee or paper towels stored in your garage, so you don’t have an excuse not to wipe the film off your headlights, before you take off. When that last remaining wooly mammoth runs out into the middle of the road some night, you’ll thank yourself.
When driving in the snow, do everything slowly.
Even with good coolant, snow tires, stability control, all-wheel drive, and the bag of Doritos in the trunk, keep in mind that driving in snow, sleet, and ice is very treacherous. And even if you maintain control of your car, not everyone else will. So don’t ever get lulled into a false sense of security. Do everything slowly and gently. Remember, in the snow, the tires are always just barely grabbing the road. Accelerate slowly and gently, turn slowly and gently, and brake slowly and gently. To do this, you have to anticipate turns and stops. That means what? Going slowly and leaving and leaving plenty of distance between you and other cars. Rapid movements lead to skids and loss of control. Drive as if there were eggs on the bottoms of your feet – step on the gas and the brake pedals so gently that you don’t break the eggshell.
If you’re nervous about driving in winter, consider spending some time practicing. Go to an empty parking lot and try sending the car into a little skid on purpose. Slam on the brakes, then practice turning into the skid and see what happens – and practice until you’re comfortable regaining control of the car. Doing this in a large, empty parking lot (preferably without light poles) allows you the luxury of skidding without ending up flat on your back, looking up into the eyes of seven different EMTs. The more comfortable you are maintaining control and regaining control, the better a winter driver you’ll be. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t forget your laptop computer with the cellular Internet connection so you can kill time here at Car Talk while you’re waiting for the tow truck.
If you’re thinking about a new car, think about safety features that will help in lousy weather.
If you’re looking at buying a new car, consider buying one with features that will help you when road conditions stink, such as anti-lock brakes and vehicle stability control.
Vehicle stability control, a relatively recent safety addition, has been shown to prevent accidents during treacherous or otherwise dangerous driving conditions. It doesn’t give you license to drive recklessly in poor conditions, but it will give you an added degree of safety. We recommend it. How’s it work? Here’s a good rundown.
Finally, if you really have to drive a lot in the snow, all-wheel drive is a good option. If you just drive in the snow a few days a year, front-wheel drive is fine – and you’ll get better fuel economy and save a heap of money on repairs over the years.