Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's never too late for some winter driving tips

Yeah I know that we're already into winter, that it's been snowing in some parts of the country for a month or so, but it's never too late to pass on some winter driving tips I've learned over the years.

There's always disagreement on how to warm up your car. I used to be of the mind that it should be nice and toasty inside before I drove off but that got thrown to the curb the first time I was late for work. When I worked for Honda Canada Inc., Honda said that it was best to start your car and drive off slowly so that all components could be brought up to operating temperature. That works when it's cold but there is no snow. So I came up with my own procedure for snowy days.

First thing I'd do was brush the snow from the driver's door area. This requires having a snow brush outside the car because if you use the one in the car, well you end up with snow on the driver's seat. Once the doorway is clear get in and start the car and turn the heater to defrost at the lowest fan setting. Also turn on the rear window defroster. Then get back out of the car and clear all the snow from the car. Not just a little patch of clear on the windows but the whole damn car.

Once the car is clean of snow you're set to go. The engine should be up to operating temperature or very close to it. But the transmission and differential probably aren't, so drive off at a moderate rate. Test the brakes because sometimes they get a little sluggish if it's really cold. Make sure there are no restrictions in the steering - sometimes slush gets thrown into the steering/suspension and freezes overnight.

I've written before about snow tires but they bear repeating. I am not a fan of all-season tires for snow country. Snow tires are the way to go so bite the bullet and buy four (yes all four tires should be snow tires unless you only intend on accelerating and don't give a damn about steering or stopping). The best way to do it is to have the snow tires mounted on separate wheels so that you don't have to mount and dismount them every year.

I prefer to use windshield washer anti-freeze year round although it's tough to find if you're not in snow country. There is nothing worse than hitting the washers and having nothing happen just after a semi has splashed salty, mucky slush on your windshield. Just don't ever fill your windshield washer with water; always use a good quality windshield washer antifreeze.

Remember when all the smart drivers kept a bag of sand in the trunk, maybe two or three bags? The sand had two uses. First it added weight over the drive wheels and second if you got stuck you could spread the sand to give the tires some traction. There's a couple of problems with this now. Most cars are front-wheel-drive and have more than enough weight over the drive wheels. And sand tends to be moist so those bags freeze. If you must carry something to aid traction get a 10-pound bag of kitty litter.

It's been my experience that the most common place people get stuck is where they park. It often is caused by the snowplow making a pile of snow your car can't climb over. Sometimes even the smallest ridge of snow can stymie you. So carry a shovel in your car, something like those folding military shovels that can be used like a pickax or shovel.

I've never been stuck in an out of the way area for any length of time but I remember my mom almost being stuck on the New York State Thruway during a blizzard. If you are stuck for any length of time you're going to need some survival tools. Get a good survival blanket and keep it where you can get at it (if it's in the trunk and your up to the door handles in snow it might as well be at home). Never depend on the car for heat although some experts say to run the engine for a few minutes every hour. There is a good chance the tailpipe may be blocked with snow and you might just end up dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Some say to keep candles in your car (those little votive candles work well), crack a window for ventilation and the  when lite the candle will provide some heat. In these days of cell phones and pretty good cell coverage call 9-1-1 as soon as you realize you are completely stuck.

I remember reading Juan Manuel Fangio talking about racing in the wet. He said he always used the next highest gear. So if he went through what was normally a second gear corner in the wet he'd use third gear. The idea was that by using a higher gear than normal the tires wouldn't spin as easily. Makes sense and a good thing to practice in the snow if you drive a manual transmission. Some automatic transmissions have different shift settings and if yours does set it for the smoothest shifts. If you can make it start off in second gear that works. Avoid forced downshifts, keep a gentle foot on the gas pedal.

We used to rock the car when it got stuck (backward and forward over and over again). It worked. But nowadays many automatic transmissions don't like to be "abused." Check your owner's manual to see if "rocking" is recommended. You do not want to be stuck in the snow with a blown tranny.

Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive are not a cure-all for stupid driving. Neither means you can drive fast or go anywhere. They are tools that can make bad weather driving easier but it seems to me that they give far too many drivers a false sense of invincibility.

There's probably a thousand other words of wisdom. The best advice is use common sense. If the weather is terrible stay home.

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