By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Yeah, it’s almost that time of year again. In a matter of weeks, it’s gonna be cold. And a few more weeks after that, it’s gonna start snowing, sleeting and freezing. Maybe it already is snowing where you are.
Are you ready?
After years of dealing with winter in the Northeast — and dealing with DC area drivers in winter — I’ve come up with the following roster of survival tips. Maybe they’ll be useful to you, too
* Prepare your vehicle.
Check and replace the wiper blades if they are more than three months old; top off the windshield washer jar with fresh fluid. If there’s heavy snow out — and especially if your car does not have snow tires — lower the air pressure in your tires by 5-10 psi or so. This will give you much better traction. Just be sure to remember to pump the tires back up to the normal recommended pressure when the snow clears. And if your car is fitted out with high-performance “summer” tires… stay home. Or drive something else.
* Know your vehicle.
More precisely, know its built-in limits. Some layouts — for example, rear-drive sports cars and sport sedans, 2WD trucks and SUVs — are much worse in winter driving environments than others. They break traction on slippery surfaces with much less provocation — especially 2WD trucks, which are very light in the tail. And because of their low-to-the-ground design, sporty cars tend to get mired in even a couple of inches of freshly deposited snow — even if they’re all-wheel-drive.
Such cars should, ideally, be left in the garage when severe weather hits. But if you have to drive, drive with added caution and full awareness that you are starting out with a car that’s not at its best in the snow.
* Know yourself.
As Clint Eastwood once put it, “A man has got to know his limitations.” Some people are just better drivers than others — just as some people are better athletes, or mathematicians or cooks. Not a value judgment; just a reality check. If your vision’s not so great under ideal conditions, maybe you should try to avoid driving in a white-out snowstorm. If you’re terrified of skids and haven’t been trained to recover control, ice on the road can be very intimidating — and especially dangerous. And not just to you, but to everyone else around you. Bad weather driving — especially in extreme bad weather — requires more skill than ordinary A to B driving under ideal conditions. Be honest with yourself. If you know deep down you probably shouldn’t be out there, then you probably shouldn’t be out there.
* Keep the fuel tank full.
A full gas tank adds weight — which gives you more traction, especially in a RWD car or 2WD truck/SUV. Also, a full tank means you’ll have power (and heat) even if you get stuck in a monster traffic jam caused by bad weather or have to park by the side of the road for an extended period of time. Running out of gas in a blizzard is no fun. By topping off the tank before bad weather rolls in, you’ll avoid that scenario. In addition, keeping the gas tank topped off helps prevent condensation build-up in the tank — water in your gas — which can lead to hard starting and rough running.
* Maintain momentum.
The best race drivers are the smoothest drivers — and this is just as true of making progress in bad weather. Accelerate gradually, without mashing the pedal (which will usually cause the drive wheels to slip and slide). Ease into the brakes gently to slow down in a controlled, smooth fashion; don’t stomp on the pedal. Anticipate — rather than react. And under certain circumstances, it’s best — and safest — to keep moving rather than come to a full stop and risk getting stuck. And getting others stuck, too. For example, if you’re facing a snow-covered hill, avoid stopping at all costs. If you stop mid-way up, odds are good you’ll get stuck; you may even slide back down, too. And into a ditch — or someone else’ car. Keep on the throttle; it’s ok if the car drifts left-right a little so long as it’s still under your control. Maintain. You can do it!
* Be prepared to ditch.
Part of driving in snow/ice is the reality that you may have to go “off road.” As you drive, look around you and be thinking about where you’d want to point the car if you had to run off the road in order to avoid piling into traffic ahead of you that suddenly slowed down. It’s better, for example, to slide into a relatively soft median strip than slam into a telephone pole. Packed snow has more give than a fixed object such as an oak tree or bridge abutment. Beware of water — rivers, ponds, etc. If you have to leave the road, you do not want to go there. Hitting almost anything else is preferable to taking a Slurpee swim.