Winter — the magical season that transforms all roads into rinks, cars into hockey pucks and drivers into passengers — is upon us. That means three months of brutal driving conditions for those of us who park our cars in the 6th state, but there are a few simple things we can all do to prepare for the slippery path ahead.
With a blizzard expected to hit New England this weekend, here’s what we recommend:
- Get yourself TWO windshield scrapers. We’ve all done it – opened the door to grab a scraper only to watch a small avalanche make its way from the roof into the drivers seat. Keep one in the car, and one in the house. And don’t buy one of the 6″ travel-size models; while they look handy in the store, your handy is going to get pretty cold the first time you need to remove 7″ of fresh powder. Invest in a nice, big scraper/brush combination tool and be done with it. We found a crazy, out of control scraper from Oxo in their Extendable Twister Snowbrush.
- Top off your wiper fluid. This one is a no-brainer. Even when it isn’t snowing, the truck ahead of you is going to throw a nasty salt/mud concoction right in your windshield any time the road gets wet. Don’t use water, as it will freeze (duh); a gallon jug of quality Smurf juice can be found for less than $5 at your local gas station or supermarket. Buy two, and check your owner’s manual for filling instructions.
- Check your wiper blades. If your wiper blades struggled to keep your windshield clear in the spring and fall, don’t expect them to put up much of a fight to rain’s colder sister. Check the rubber for cracks, tears, or any signs of wear. If they don’t make the grade, a new set of high performance Rain-X blades go for about $20 at any auto parts store.
- Inspect your tires. First, check your tire pressure. The pressure in your tires falls by 1-2 PSI for every 10-degree drop in temperature, so don’t be surprised if you have to fill up. You can find the recommended range on the yellow sticker in your doorjamb, and a pressure gauge will deflate your wallet by about $10. If your pressure is low, top off at a gas station.
Then check your tread depth. To do this, stick a quarter into one of the treads with Washington’s head upside-down. If any part of his head is covered by rubber, it means you have at least 4/32″ of tread depth – good to go. But if his wig doesn’t reach the rubber, you might want to replace your rollers. Studies have shown that braking distances on wet pavement nearly double when your tires wear from 4/32″ to 2/32″ (Lincoln’s head on a penny).
Finally, figure out exactly what kind of rubber you have wrapped around your rims. Find the make and model on the tire’s sidewall and check the specs online. Chances are your shoes are of the all-season variety – which are OK – but you want to make sure that don’t have summer tires. While they’re great for dry pavement, summer tires are downright dangerous in winter conditions. You owe it to yourself (and everyone else on the road) to check, especially if your two-owner vehicle spent its early years anywhere south of Pennsylvania.
- Consider snow tires. As I said, all-season tires are OK, but they are nowhere near as cold-weather-capable as snow tires. Studies have shown that snow tires require 28 fewer feet than their all-season counterparts to halt a car traveling at 40 MPH. From 60 MPH, the difference is 59 feet. In low-visibility blizzard conditions, this kind of improvement can mean the difference between stopping safely and getting into an accident. In addition to their superior stopping power, snow tires provide better lateral grip (which will come in handy if you decide to turn) and acceleration (which will come in handy when you need to get from zero to moving). A set of four can run anywhere between $300 and $400, and most shops will mount any tires you purchase from them for free. While they aren’t cheap, snow tires make winter driving safer for you, your car, and everyone else on the road.
- Check your battery. If it sounded strained in the fall months it’s going to sound a lot worse on those 10 degree February mornings. Freezing temperatures can cut battery output in half. Most auto parts stores will test your battery for free and let you know if it’s going to leave you stranded. A new battery can cost anywhere from $100 to $200, but will provide you with years of cold-cranking power that you can count on.
- Check your coolant. Even on the coldest of days, your engine gets very hot and relies on coolant to keep from overheating. That’s why you need to make sure the magical liquid is, well, a liquid. Coolant becomes solid if it isn’t mixed with the right amount of antifreeze. The ideal ratio is 50:50, and the only way to be sure that you have it right is by flushing the radiator system. It’s a good thing to do anyway if your car has over 50,000 miles, and should set you back less than $100 at an independent shop. A dealership will probably charge you more.