Winter is approaching quickly. Are you ready to see more rain and snow on the roads? Although bad weather driving is intimidating for a lot of people, there is nothing to worry about as long as you’ve taken some time to prepare. Here’s a quick checklist you can use to get started on car maintenance and driver preparation.
Tips for Prepping the Car
Crashing or breaking down in bad weather will ruin your day pretty quickly. Before you start your journey, you’ll want to make sure the car is up to the task.
1) Check Vehicle Fluids
Check all fluids (particularly the brake fluid and engine oil) and make sure you have good, firm pressure on the brake pedal. Air in the brake lines will give you a spongy brake pedal feel, and lead to problems when you go to stop the car.
2) Check Tire Pressures and Tread Depth
Tire pressures drop as it gets colder. Check your tire pressures and make sure you have adequate tread depth. If you have less than 6/32″ of tread in the wintertime, it’s time to start thinking about buying new tires. Colorado’s Traction Law requires a 3/16 inch minimum tread depth, which is equivalent to 6/32″.
3) Replace Wipers and Windshield Washer Fluid
Functional windshield wipers are critical for maintaining good visibility, particularly in heavy rain and snow. You should replace your windshield wipers about once a year in areas that see significant precipitation. Sometimes you can get away with cleaning your wiper blades to extend the usable life of the wipers.
Top off your windshield washer fluid. The washer fluid reservoir is typically very large and easy to find in the engine bay. Make sure you’re using a formula that won’t freeze in the cold temperatures you’ll be driving through.
4) Check Air Conditioning
Although this may seem counterintuitive, running the air conditioning in the wintertime can be very helpful for clearing fog off of your windows. Air conditioning dries out the air and clears fog faster than just running the heat. Many defrost settings cycle the A/C compressor automatically.
Make sure your air conditioning system is charged and functioning normally. It doesn’t hurt to run the A/C, even when it’s cold outside. Your heat will still work if you set the temperature to a warm setting.
5) Treat Windows for Ice
If your windows are foggy or icy in the morning, wait until they are defrosted before driving. Sometimes you can lay a towel over the outside of the windshield to prevent excessive ice buildup.
You can keep a can of de-icing spray around to help clear windows quickly. Don’t use hot water, or you risk cracking the windshield.
6) Treat Windows for Fog
Fog severely impacts your visibility, and it can even build up while you’re driving. Clean the inside of your windshield regularly, as off-gassing from the dashboard can build up and impair visibility over time.
Although there are interior defogging products on the market, one of the best tricks to defog your windows is to use a pea-sized amount of dish soap on a microfiber towel. Rub the dish soap into the windshield (with no water) until it disappears and you can see clearly again. The thin coating of dish soap will help repel fog so it doesn’t stick to the glass.
Many professional race car drivers use this defogging trick, because race cars often have no functional HVAC or A/C systems. The trick works for the inside of helmet visors, too.
7) Buy the Right Tires
Tires are the most important parts on your vehicle. The better your tires, the quicker you can go, turn, and stop. Tires matter much, much more than having AWD.
Winter driving conditions require more tread depth than dry roads. All season tires are decent in most weather conditions, but don’t particularly excel at any of it. Winter tires are vastly superior to all season tires when it comes to ice and snow.
If you have a place to store them, buying a dedicated set of winter wheels and tires is a great way to ensure you always have the best tire for the job equipped.
Tips for Prepping the Driver
On a race track, a Ferrari in the hands of a novice would be left in the dust by a skilled Miata driver. Likewise, it’s important to prepare for the winter by honing your driving skills. You owe it to your family and everyone around you to be the best driver you can be. Here are some practical things you can learn that will keep you safe on the road.
1) Look Far Ahead
Practice good vision by looking as far down the road as you possibly can. The farther you can see, the more time you have to react. Using good vision, it will feel like the world is approaching much slower than it would if you’re looking straight down in front of your hood.
Good vision will help you avoid obstacles like deer, rocks, and fallen trees. It can also give you more time to react if everyone ahead of you starts braking for a stalled vehicle.
2) Keep a Safe Following Distance
When the roads are slick, it’s more important than ever to keep a safe distance from the people around you. It’s easy for people to start sliding on ice and snow. Give them the room they need to correct their slide and bring the vehicle back under control.
3) Brake Early
Braking will take exponentially longer on ice than it does on dry pavement. If you suspect the roads are icy, start braking very early so you know how much grip you have. Do your best to brake in a straight line so you don’t upset the balance of the vehicle.
Under braking, your rear end is more likely to step out and initiate a slide. This is because some of the weight over the rear tires has transferred to the front, leaving the rear tires with less grip.
4) Slow Down
The faster you go, the easier it is to lose control. Likewise, it takes much longer to brake; your stopping distance increases exponentially with respect to vehicle speed.
Don’t feel obligated to drive as fast as the speed limit. If the conditions are unsafe for 55 mph, try doing 40 and see how the car feels. You may have to allocate more time for travel when the weather is bad.
5) Use Smooth Inputs
Abrupt braking, acceleration, or steering inputs are likely to upset the car when it’s near the limit of traction. As you drive, make sure your movements at the controls are slow, controlled, and deliberate. You may need to use a much lighter throttle application in bad weather, particularly in rear wheel drive vehicles.
6) Learn to Correct a Slide
When one axle loses grip, your vehicle will start to slide. If you start to slide, gently let off the gas and steer in the direction you want to go. If you quickly crank the wheel to one side, you risk overcorrecting. An overcorrection will cause the vehicle to pendulum into a slide in the other direction. This pendulum is often much harder to correct.
A loss of traction on the front axle is called understeer. A loss of traction on the rear axle is called oversteer. There are different techniques you need to use to correct each type of slide.
When the car starts to understeer, the steering wheel will feel lighter in your hands. If you’re in a corner, the car will start to push straight ahead (toward the outside of the turn), even though the steering wheel is still turned.
There are two main ways to resolve understeer. First, straighten out the wheel a very small amount. When you use less steering angle, you’re asking less from the front tires because you’re taking a wider turn.
If you’re still understeering, slowly let off the gas to transfer some weight toward the nose of the vehicle. Added weight over the nose will allow the tires to dig into the road more, and may restore enough grip to make the turn. When you’re not on the throttle, you can also try braking very gently.
Be very careful that you don’t panic and brake too hard. Too much braking in a turn will result in snap oversteer (also called lift-off oversteer). Snap oversteer occurs when the rear end gets too light and whips around violently. It is fairly difficult to catch before you spin. This can happen in any vehicle, even if it’s front wheel drive.
This is the type of traction loss most people think of when they imagine a slide. When you oversteer, the car wants to rotate too much. You can even spin around and end up pointing backwards.
When the rear end starts to step out, quickly (but smoothly) steer in the same direction the rear is moving. If the rear steps out to the left, quickly steer to the left about a quarter turn.
You usually don’t need much steering angle to correct the slide if you catch it early. You should not need to take your hands off the wheel if your reaction is quick enough. Keep in mind that more steering angle may be necessary if the rear keeps sliding after your initial input.
If the rear stepped out because you gave the car too much gas, back off the throttle just a little, but not enough to shift the weight dramatically forward.
As soon as the car starts to straighten out, steer to the right ever so slightly to counteract the pendulum motion of the rear end returning to center. The steering angle in the opposite direction should be a fraction of your initial countersteer.
7) Understand Your Brakes (With or Without ABS)
Do you know if your vehicle is equipped with ABS? It’s important to know what type of braking system you have, because the proper technique for quick stops will vary slightly whether or not you have ABS.
Practice with your brakes in a wide open safe area away from traffic so you understand how they work when you need to brake hard.
Threshold braking is the practice of applying brakes to the point where every tire is at the limit of grip. Any further braking would lock up the tires or engage the ABS system. If you lack ABS, threshold braking should be your goal.
The threshold braking point will be different depending on how much grip the road has. You will end up applying much less braking pressure on ice or even rain than you would on dry pavement.
If you don’t have ABS, it is possible to lock up your tires if you step on the brakes too hard. Locked front tires will prevent you from steering, and the vehicle will not stop as quickly as a rolling tire would.
If you brake a little too hard and lock up a tire, let up on the brake pressure a little bit to allow the tire to regain grip. Next, increase pedal pressure to the point where it is just slightly less than you used before.
Sometimes a locked tire stops faster in the mud or snow. This is because the tire might dig into the snow, building it up in front of the tire. Snow is great at sticking to itself, and this helps slow you down.
If you have ABS, most drivers will be able to stop most quickly by standing on the brake pedal. Although threshold braking is theoretically faster, it is very difficult to achieve without a lot of practice.
When your ABS light is illuminated, don’t count on the ABS system being able to stop your vehicle. ABS uses wheel speed sensors to determine when a wheel is slipping. A bad sensor could prevent the ABS system from engaging properly.
No matter what other people are doing, drive in a manner that makes you feel comfortable. Try not to rush to your destination. Give yourself space and let others by if they want to drive faster than you. It’s much better to be a few minutes late than to not make it there at all.