Drive safely with expert cold-weather car care tips

December 30, 2009

Courtesy of ARA Content

Rough winter weather increases your risk of being in a car accident by 36 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But taking a few steps now can help minimize your risk. Ed Ramsden, automotive coordinator at WyoTech in Blairsville, Pa., offers some important advice for winter driving.

First, check your engine fluid. “In the winter, engine fluid has double duties,” says Ramsden. “It warms the inside of your car while also acting as a coolant to keep your engine from overheating. Your engine fluid can lose its properties after extended use, so you want to make sure to follow manufacturer standards.”

While some vehicles can go five years or 100,000 miles before needing a change, others require engine fluid to be changed every three years. To maximize performance on cold mornings, automotive technicians also suggest you give your car at least three to five minutes to warm up. This allows the engine fluid to reach operating temperature before driving.

Second, make sure to maintain proper tire pressure. Improper tire pressure affects handling, gas mileage, tire wear and tear, and traction—all of which can make driving more dangerous in rough road conditions.

Tire pressures can fluctuate widely in the winter climate because the air inside the tires can go from very cold to very hot in a short amount of time, so Ramsden recommends you take a few minutes to check your tire pressure each time you fill up at the gas station.

WyoTech’s Ramsden also suggests that tires more than three years old be replaced.

“The compounds used in tire manufacturing break down over time, and after three years, there is enough wear to affect the structural integrity of the tire,” he explains.

Checking the age of your tires is easy. Just look for the last four digits of the DOT label on the sidewall. The last four digits of the number tell you the week and year of manufacture.

Traction is more important in the winter than at other times of the year, so you want to check the tread pattern and tread depth on all your tires. If snow is likely in your climate, you want to make sure your tread depth is not less than 6/32nds inches. One quick way to check your tread depth is with a penny. Just place a penny face down into the tread groove of the tire. If the top of the Lincoln Memorial is covered by the tread, you have more than 6/32nds of tread depth remaining. If not, it’s time to get new ones.

Third, always buy windshield wiper fluid that matches the climate you live in. “Play it safe,” says Ramsden. “If it is possible for temperature to reach negative 20 degrees, then you want to buy fluid that is good up to negative 25 degrees.” The wrong windshield fluid in the winter can result in busted lines and containers if the fluid freezes. Good windshield wipers are also a good investment. “If you can’t see well, you can’t drive well,” says Ramsden.

Even if you live in a frigid climate, however, Ramsden warns against using dry gas additives. “All gasoline sold in the U.S. is regulated, so you should not have problems with gas lines freezing in today’s market,” he says. In fact, the use of fuel additives can cause severe drivability issues resulting in hard starts and deceleration stalls. Extended use can also damage the catalytic converter, which is a very expensive emission control device.

Making sure your car is in good condition is only the first step. How you drive in winter weather is just as important. “My favorite winter advice is three simple rules: Drive slow, stop early and keep in mind most people aren’t following these simple rules – i.e., drive defensively,” says Ramsden.

“You want to be prepared for any type of situation,” Ramsden says. Keep gloves, a winter hat and a warm coat in your vehicle in case of a breakdown. You may also want to keep a tow strap or jumper cables in the trunk, in case you encounter someone else in need. Ramsden suggests you keep a fully-charged cell phone, blanket, hazard markers and a tire jack in the trunk. You may also want to carry a bag of kitty litter in your trunk for additional traction, in case you get stuck.

Lastly, Ramsden suggests you keep a full tank of fuel in your vehicle at all times. The additional weight is helpful for traction, and it can come in very useful in case of an emergency. “You definitely don’t want to run out of gas if you get stuck in your vehicle for any period of time,” he says.

From the Dec. 30, 2009 – Jan. 5, 2010 issue

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