Safe winter driving starts with layers of experience and caution. (Having the right auto insurance helps protect you from the elements, too.)
Lowering your speed and maintaining a safe distance between vehicles increases precious seconds of reaction time if conditions quickly worsen or an accident occurs ahead of you. With time, you gain experience identifying misleading conditions (like black ice) and other drivers’ behaviors.
Vehicle maintenance provides another essential safety layer – so we called in some pros to share their best tips.
Jody Barto, operations manager at Bonnell’s Collision Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, offered up his best winter car maintenance advice –including some things that might not be on your list. Plus, ERIE material damage supervisors from North Carolina and Illinois weigh in on what’s important to maintain on your vehicle, no matter how mild or wild your winter weather is.
6 Tips for Winter Car Care
- Tires: They’re No. 1 because good tires are the most essential item to maintain each winter. “Your tire tread should be 6/32 or greater,” Barto said, “or they will have trouble keeping up with precipitation—meaning your tires won’t be able to contact the road, causing your car to hydroplane and possibly cause an accident.”
If you need new tires, make them a priority before snow and slush become a permanent fixture on the roadways. Buy the best tires you can afford and consider snow tires if you travel in snow frequently. “Tire pressures can fluctuate with temperature changes,” Ron Strauss, material damage supervisor in ERIE’s Illinois Branch explained. “Maintain tire pressure for vehicle control, and to get the best gas mileage in any weather conditions.”
- Wipers: Torn wipers cause major visibility issues. It’s best to use contour blades that have a metal band in them. Most newer vehicles come equipped with them. Old, traditional blades just don't cut it in the winter. “I recommend winter wiper blades,” Barto said. “They won't freeze or shred. Quality blades ensure the best visibility in unsafe conditions.”
- Winter windshield washer fluid: Winter washer fluid tolerates much colder temperatures to prevent freezing. Try to use up any warm-weather windshield washer fluid before temperatures drop. It may not be able to handle cold temperatures, causing the washer fluid tank to freeze and crack. It’s also important to scan your windshield for any visible chips or cracks.
“When the temperatures turn cold, those small chips and cracks can turn into a big problem,” said James Nelson, an ERIE material damage supervisor in Charlotte, North Carolina. “If you fix these small problems early, you can prevent replacing the entire windshield when it spreads, which is a much more expensive fix.” Learn more about how to handle a windshield repair or how (and when) to replace your windshield wipers.
- Don’t forget the basics: Take your vehicle for some routine scheduled maintenance like oil changes and tire checks, or do a little DIY if you’ve got the expertise. Be sure to replace dirty, worn cabin air filters and engine air filters. “Many auto parts stores will check your vehicle’s battery life for free,” Strauss said. “If voltage is below the threshold for your vehicle’s battery, they can suggest for you to replace it before you’re stranded on the side of a cold road.”
Headlights make a big difference for safety, too. “I wax my lamps year-round,” Nelson said. “It increases visibility of my vehicle to other drivers and pedestrians, and allows me to see better when driving in severe weather conditions.”
- Clean windows and mirrors: Having full visibility helps immensely when you need to keep your eyes on the road. Keep advanced safety systems clear of snow and mud to ensure cameras and sensors work correctly. A clean exterior keeps your forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB) and other features your vehicle may use reading their surroundings correctly.
“Dirt, debris, snow and ice can get stuck under wipers and the hood,” Strauss said. “If these areas freeze because of blockages and buildup, water will run somewhere -- most likely into the car where it can cause electrical problems, wet carpets, bad odors and rust."
- Alignment: Vehicles need correct alignment for advanced safety systems to report correctly. “You'll see you need to align cars more frequently because of the safety Automated Driving Systems (ADS),” Barto explained. “Many advanced safety systems use the steering angle sensor. An unaligned steering wheel positions your camera incorrectly, because it is based off of your car going straight. A slight miscalculation could lead you many feet off the road, so it’s especially important to have it right when conditions are difficult to navigate.”
What to Do After a Winter Slip-Up
Slow speeds, safe distances and time behind the wheel will help you stay safe while driving in bad conditions. If an accident does occur, know your agent and the ERIE claims team are available when you need help.
“It’s best to have the vehicle towed to a collision shop immediately after an accident, even if it appears the vehicle is safe to drive,” Barto said. “If you’re sure it’s safe to drive home, call your collision shop and schedule an appointment as soon as possible.”
Barto explained that he often sees invisible damage occur and it worsens if a car isn't brought in immediately. This could include seemingly minor things like hitting a curb or sliding off the roadway. “Alignments could be off, causing more costly damage to the vehicle,” he said. “Or, the if the ADS reads the road wrong, it creates the perfect conditions for a bigger accident.”
Remember to protect yourself in layers to keep you and your vehicle safe this winter. (And when you’re safely bundled at home, talk to your local ERIE agent for an auto quote to see how much a bundle could save you.)
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