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How to Winterize Your Car ...
and Your Brain for Winter Driving

Jack Frost is getting ready to fill much of the country with slippery, icy, snowy and cold winter weather -- a treat for snowball-loving schoolchildren, a hassle for commuters, and their cars.

Blizzards, snowdrifts, freezing temperatures and ice storms can mean big trouble for drivers, which is why it's so important to prepare your vehicle, and your mind, for winter driving.

winterize your car

Keep a backpack filled with emergency items (flashlight, jumper cables, warm clothes, snowbrush, extra food and water, etc.) in your trunk during the winter -- it could save your life in an emergency!

Preparing Your Car For Winter

With a few quick adjustments, your car will be better able to handle the winter road, and keep you safe. These tips are so simple that there's no excuse not to do them!

  1. Change the car's oil. In the winter, it's harder for your car's oil to circulate. Clean oil circulates better than dirty oil, and thinner oil may be needed in the winter (your vehicle owner's manual can tell you what type of oil you need in the winter).

  2. Check the antifreeze. If you haven't changed your antifreeze in awhile, you should do so before winter. Antifreeze will keep your car's engine, radiator and hoses from freezing. You should keep a mixture of 50 percent water, 50 percent antifreeze in your car (inexpensive antifreeze testers are available to test the ratio on your own).

  3. Make sure the tires are in good shape. If your budget allows, or you live in an especially cold, stormy or hilly area, investing in snow tires may be a good choice to help improve your vehicle's traction.

    At the very least, you need to make sure your car's tires have the correct tire pressure, as they will shrink in colder weather. If your tire isn't inflated properly, you will have less traction and your tires can be more easily damaged. Check your vehicle owner's manual for correct tire pressures.

  4. Inspect the battery. Cold temperatures can cut a vehicle's battery power in half. recommends having your battery professionally tested if it's older than three years, and keeping posts and connections corrosion-free.

  5. Check your wipers and wiper fluid. When slushy snow and ice hit your windshield, the wipers are the only things keeping your visibility clear. Wiper blades last about one year, so you should replace them if they're older. Also check to make sure you have plenty of wiper fluid; you'll be glad it's there when you need it.

  6. Put an emergency kit in your trunk. An emergency kit can save your life in case of an emergency, so grab a backpack and stock it with these essential items recommended by

    • A flashlight, flares and a first-aid kit

    • Jumper cables, a tool kit and tire chains

    • A blanket and some warm winter clothes

    • A bag of sand or salt, to use for traction if a tire gets stuck

    • A snowbrush, ice scraper and snow shovel

    • A container of wiper fluid and paper towels

    • Some food and water

  7. Avoid getting locked out. If your vehicle's door locks freeze, heat the end of your key with a match or lighter, then insert it into the lock. Alternatively, use de-icer spray to unfreeze the lock.

Tricky Winter Driving Scenarios to Watch Out For

winterize your car

If your vehicle starts to skid on an icy road, ease off the accelerator and steer in the direction you want the car to go (then straighten the wheel when the car begins to move in that direction).

You can prepare your vehicle all you want, but winter road conditions can still catch you off guard. Here's how to handle some of the more common winter driving hazards:

  • Ice patches: Ice forms first in shaded areas, bridges, overpasses and intersections, and can be invisible (black ice). Increase your following distance and slow down if ice may be present. Meanwhile, avoid making sudden turns, accelerations or stops.

  • Poor visibility: Remove snow and ice from your entire car, including lights, turn signals, roof, hood and mirrors, and use low-beam headlights, which provide better illumination in snow than high-beams. Use wiper fluid frequently to keep your windshield clear.

  • Skidding: If your vehicle starts to skid on a snowy or icy patch, ease off the accelerator, then steer in the direction you want the car to go. When the car begins to move in that direction, straighten the steering wheel.

  • Getting stuck. If your vehicle gets stuck in the snow, put sand or salt under the drive wheels, then straighten the wheels. Next, accelerate slowly (but not so much that you spin the tires).

  • Snowy roads. Driving on snow, whether it's slushy, hard-packed, slippery, filled with ruts or soft, takes some adjustments from normal driving. Reduce your speed, increase your following distance and avoid sudden turns of the steering wheel, sudden braking or sudden accelerating, all of which could cause your vehicle to skid. Anti-lock brakes are most effective when firm, constant pressure is applied to the pedal (in an emergency you can push the pedal all the way to the floor).

Recommended Reading

The Top Six Winter Driving Dangers and How to Handle Them Safely

12 Tips to Lower Your Heating Bill This Winter


AAA: Auto Safety & Maintenance

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