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Brush up on Safe Winter Driving Habits

Make sure you’re prepared for the cold weather and icy conditions this season

Smiling young woman in woolen cap leans out of her driver’s window, to assure us she is prepared for winter cold and difficult driving conditions.The cold temperatures and snowfall we’ve already seen this season have been severe in some states, and there’s no better time to take some extra precautions. Ice and snow are lots of fun for ice skating, sledding, skiing and snowboarding, and snowball fights, but they can make things challenging for the rest of us trying to dig ourselves out to get to school or work safely. Given the reality of the weather this time of year, we have some suggestions for good winter behavior when it comes to driving your car. Follow these to maximize your safety!

Be a model winter driver

When the weather conditions are worse, don’t be someone that others have to drive defensively around. These common-sense guidelines will keep everyone around you safe:

  • Go slow. It’s always better to be on the cautious side, and drop down closer to (or even below) the speed limit—especially if there is precipitation falling. A slower speed gives you more reaction time, so that if someone in front of you goes into a skid, you’ll be able to brake or swerve in time. Snowy or icy roads means that you can’t speed up or stop the car very quickly without losing some control. Leaving some distance between you and the other cars on the road is the safest way to go. If others are whizzing by, and you don’t feel comfortable, put on your hazards and go slow. This can be especially important at night if the visibility is bad.
  • Avoid a skid. This is the easiest way to lose control of your car, and you can often avoid it. If you have a manual-shift transmission, you have the additional control of being able to downshift to lower gears to slow the car down without applying the brakes. Similarly, when you’re trying to accelerate, shift into a higher gear to avoid spinning your wheels. Even a car with an automatic transmission may allow you to crawl with a special gear, so familiarize yourself with your car’s features. The other trick on icy roads is to pump the brakes, which you only need to do if you don’t have anti-lock brakes. Regardless, if you know you’re coming to a stop and want to give the drivers behind you some notice, it’s a good idea to tap lightly on your brakes (without even engaging them), just to flash your brake lights to cars behind you. Those who are tempted to get too close will see it as a warning sign to give you some distance. If you do start to skid, take your foot off the break and steer into the same direction your car is already moving.
  • Get snow tires. If you’re driving in extreme weather a lot of the time, this might be a worthwhile investment. They provide additional tread that can help your car grip the road. Just make sure you switch back to regular tires when the season is over.
  • Use your allwheel drive. If your car is equipped with this feature, be sure to use it when you are climbing an icy hill or just need some additional traction during a storm or on snow-covered roads.

Make sure your car is weather-ready

Ideally, at the beginning of the season you took your car into the dealer or the shop for a tune-up. But if not, do it now! Taking care of this as soon as possible is the wise way to go, since once you’re broken down by the side of an icy road, it will be too late. You don’t want to have to call a tow truck while you’re jogging in place to stay warm!

Make sure your mechanic checks several things (or you can do it yourself, if you’re handy!):

  • Wiper fluid: This time of year, running out of fluid in your windshield washer reservoir can be dangerous as well as inconvenient. This substance can help to keep your visibility clear when snow or ice is falling, so you want to be sure that the levels are topped up. A lot of people who are otherwise novices in auto maintenance are able to locate this reservoir under the hood and fill it themselves. It’s a good idea to know where it is and check it regularly, so you don’t run out. Keep an extra bottle of the non-freezing kind of wiper fluid in your trunk, so you’re never caught without any.
  • Wiper blades: Make sure your rubber wiper blades are up to the challenge of the winter weather. Those that are worn or cracked won’t serve you well up against freezing rain, snow, or sleet. Take a look at yours and have them replaced (or replace them yourself) as soon as you notice they don’t clear the windshield effectively. Usually an inexpensive repair!
  • Tires: Even if you have replaced your tires within the last 6 years (as experts recommend) you still want to check the tread and make sure they will do an adequate job of gripping the road. They should all have a tread of at least 1/16 of an inch. Lower temperatures mean lower tire pressure, so check yours before any long car trips, and add air as soon as you see they are low—this is essential to safe driving.
  • Battery: This critical device makes sure you can start your car, so you want one that will work well even in the challenging colder temperatures. Electric cars and hybrids have batteries that will need a little extra time to warm up before you drive them, and they may not hold the charge for as long as you are used to. So, plan ahead!
  • Coolant: This chemical mixture can be your car’s best friend on a truly frigid day. The antifreeze in it keeps things from freezing up. Make sure the coolant has been replaced recently, since dirt and particles in it can mess with your engine. The mechanic might also want to flush the hoses and check for leaks while they’re at it.

Another easy thing to do this time of year is make sure your fuel doesn’t drop below a half—or at least a third—of a tank. You don’t ever want to be in danger of running out of gas, and it’s better for your engine in the cold weather not to be low on gas.

Keep a safety kit in your car

There are certain items it’s smart to have with you, so you’re always prepared for a potential breakdown. Make a list of what you don’t have, and keep these in your trunk at all times:

  • Jumper cables. Even if your battery is new, you never know who else might need a jump!
  • Blankets. There’s probably an old one lying around your house that you could spare. If you don’t have a lot of extra room, at least look for the thin silver Mylar thermal ones—they fold up into nothing.
  • Flashlight. Don’t rely on the flashlight feature on your phone—it drains the battery, and that could be trouble if you need to call for a tow truck or other help. Get a good one, and make sure to replace the batteries each year.
  • Snow brush, scraper, and shovel. You want to be able to de-ice the car, and also dig yourself out of a snowbank, if needed.
  • Rock salt. This can create some additional tread under your tires. Another alternative is kitty litter.
  • Reflective items. A vest is a good idea so, in case you need to change a tire on the side of the road, other drivers can see you easily.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll keep yourself safe when there’s bad weather, and contribute to the safety of those around you on the road as well. It just takes a little advance planning. And of course, the smartest thing to do is avoid driving under the worst and coldest conditions, if possible. Check your campus’s social media pages for news of delayed opening and cancellations. And then enjoy a safe and fun winter!

This post is part of the weekly blog of the Harris School of Business. We’re dedicated to supporting all our students in pursuing their career goals. Reach out to us for more information about our number of different career training programs. Or call us at 800.510.7920 to schedule a visit to one of our eight campuses in New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.