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How to Go (Safely) In the Snow

headshot of James Armitage
James Armitage

Yes, winter has returned. No one can change the weather, but with proper preparation many common problems associated with winter driving can be overcome. Now is the time to be thinking about how to prepare our vehicles for all that potential cold and snow.

There is a systematic approach to prepare our vehicles for what is sure to come. The main areas of concern that should be on everyone’s checklist include the battery, cooling /heating system, lubrication system and above all—the tires.

The mood of the battery determines if the engine will start eagerly or just grumble and groan. The best way to keep the battery happy is to make sure it can hold a full charge and is ready to deliver the energy needed to crank a cold, sluggish engine. A simple battery and charging system evaluation now will reveal potential cold-weather starting problems later.

The vehicles cooling system (a.k.a. “I want heat now!” system) is vital to protecting the engine from freeze damage. A 50/50 mix of antifreeze solution and water will give the engine what it needs to survive the brutal cold. Inspecting belts, hoses and other cooling system components will make sure things function as designed.

One of the more common questions associated with cold weather driving is “How long should I let my car warm up?” It is generally agreed that a warm-up time of approximately 30 seconds followed by driving the car normally is better than letting it “chug away” in the driveway. Long idle times simply waste gas and contribute to deposit buildup in the engine.

In order to maximize cold weather starting and minimize internal engine wear, change the engine oil on schedule and check the level every couple of weeks or so (based on your engine’s oil consumption rate). When in doubt, use the recommended grade and type of oil endorsed by the manufacturer.

Keeping the vehicle in contact with the road and pointed in the desired direction is a top priority, and that is the primary job of the tires. While good traction is a must under all driving conditions, when snow and ice enter the picture, driving can quickly become “a white knuckle” experience. Dedicated snow tires will improve handling and traction at temperatures below 45 degrees. Regardless of tire type, all tires need two things to do their job properly—adequate air and sufficient tread. Check and adjust tire pressure every couple of weeks and replace them now if the tread depth is at the legal limit (1/16 of an inch). In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that twice that amount (1/8 of an inch) is the least tread depth needed for best traction, handling and stopping distance.

Now that you have a plan for making sure your vehicle is in top shape for efficient and safe winter driving, it’s worth mentioning that the best winter driving advice anyone can offer is: If the weather looks bad and you don’t have to go out, stay inside. It’s really not that long until spring.

James Armitage is a Professor of Automotive Technology at Waubonsee Community College.