The return of cold weather brings back hazards of winter driving--frozen locks, slick roads and low visibility. Ice and snow can turn the simplest trek into a perilous ride. That's why it's important to make sure your car is ready for the challenge. Easy maintenance such as checking fluid levels, inspecting brakes and rotating tires can extend the life of your car and possibly save your own.
When the temperature dips to single digits, batteries lose more than half their strength. Your battery needs to be charged for your car to start on frigid days. The best way to detect a weak battery is with the help of a professional. Take the car to a qualified repair-shop technician who will perform a load test to make sure it's up to speed, particularly if the battery is more than two years old. Get a new one if it can't hold the charge.
You can also do some basic steps yourself. First, put on safety goggles and gloves to avoid contact with corrosion and acid. Then check the battery and surrounding wires for possible problems--cracks, holes or defects. Replace anything that's damaged. Retighten connections that have loosened. You can use an old toothbrush and a paste of baking soda and water to clean any acid-buildup on battery terminals. Scrape away corrosion from posts and cable connections.
Fill Up On Fluids
Fluids such as oil, coolant and gas are vital to maintaining the life of your car. Changing and replenishing these solutions is simple and inexpensive, but the results can be priceless.
Change your oil and oil filter at least every 3,000 miles or three months.
In between time, keep your car in shape by checking the dipstick to make sure your oil is plentiful and clean. (Black oil is dirty oil. Clean oil is a clear light, brown shade.)
Your car's cooling system should be flushed and refilled every two years. For seasonal maintenance, make sure the radiator is filled with a 50-50 mix of anti-freeze (suitable for 40 degree-below-zero temperatures) and water. You should check the concentration of the coolant periodically. Never remove the radiator cap before the engine has cooled.
Keep your tank full in icy weather to prevent your gas line from freezing. Add a bottle of fuel de-icer to your tank once a month.
Make sure brake fluid and transmission fluid and filter are in good shape.
Keep It Clean
A simple way to protect your investment is to make sure it's clean. Wash and wax your car to save its finish from salt and slush. Replace worn wiper blades and make sure you have enough wiper fluid in the reserve--with a bottle to spare. For those who live in extreme climates, you might want to purchase winter (rubber-covered) blades to fight ice buildup.
Lights help you see and let other drivers see you when weather conditions turn poorly. Check all exterior lights--including headlights and taillights, emergency flashers and turn signals. While making sure they work, look for cracks and damage on the outer case. If you find a problem, replace the casing or bulb. During bad weather, periodically check the lights and signals to make sure they're free from snow and icy grime.
Check your tires to make sure they have enough tread for driving in snow. Worn or bald tires are dangerous, especially in bad weather. When inspecting tires, look for uneven wear, nicks and cuts. Rotate tires about every 5,000 miles and check air pressure once a month. Before you check the pressure, let the car cool down. Make sure you have a spare (also check it for wear and damage), flat fixer, lug wrench, jack and tire pump.
Inspect Brakes, Belt And Hoses
Have brakes checked periodically. If you hear noises, notice changes in effectiveness, such as longer stopping distances, or feel pulsing, go right away. Check driving belts for cracks and frays. Examine hoses for leaks and bulges.
Start Your Engine
Get a tune up before winter arrives. Problems with starting, stalling or power should be addressed by a professional. Check the spark plugs.
Keep a survival kit in your trunk. You should include spare clothes and shoes--sweater, gloves, scarf, boots, blankets, kitty litter or sand for traction, flashlight (with batteries), shovel, flares, matches, non-perishable, high-energy food and drinks, first-aid kit, jumper cables, tow chains, ice scraper, snow brush and clean rags.
Carry a cellular- phone. You never know where you'll be when you experience trouble. When minutes mean everything, you can't rely on finding a pay phone or waiting for someone to find you. A cellular phone can make sure you get the help you need when you need it. They're convenient and increasingly inexpensive. You can get special deals (such as phones with prepaid minutes) that offer low rates if the phone is for emergency use. Many companies even offer packages to people with less-than-perfect credit.
If you have a garage, keep the car inside when you're not driving. If you must leave it outside, cover it with a tarpaulin. According to AAA, this helps to prevent frozen locks. If your door locks freeze, you can heat your key with matches or a lighter. But remember to wear gloves. It may be tempting, but never pour hot water on a frozen lock. It will freeze. Instead, try filling a plastic bottle with warm water and hold it against the lock.
If you get trapped inside a car during a winter storm, stay inside, advises the Montana Department of Transportation. Crack the windows for ventilation. Move around as much as possible. Stay awake and turn on the inside car light to make sure you're visible. Run the engine and heater sparingly.