Winterizing your car – and your driving habits
Last Updated November 19, 2007
In those days, safe driver training, winter tires, and even seat belts, weren't available. Christianson's father, a young surgeon, was thrown out of the car. He died instantly. Christianson's mother was also thrown from the vehicle and was knocked unconscious.
"Just before it happened, I remember my father grabbing my shirt and throwing me in the back seat," Christianson said. "After that, I saw him get thrown out of the door and he hit the pavement."
Christianson grew up afraid of driving. When he turned 16, he practiced for more than a year before attempting his driver's test. Strangely, he gained so much confidence that he went on to a have a short career as a race-car driver.
But as he lived life in the fast lane, five of Christianson's friends were killed on the road — two in head-on collisions, one in a gravel shoulder drop-off, and two in intersection crashes.
So in 1967, Christianson began teaching safe driving. Today, he's president of Young Drivers of Canada, the largest driver-training organization in the country with more than 140 locations and 400 instructors. Still, although cars are safer and training is available for drivers, winter accidents continue to happen each and every year.
"We still have a long way to go," Christianson said, "but we've now got the knowledge and the tools to save ourselves from winter driving accidents, and, if possible, avoid them altogether."
The following are a few winter driving tips, recommended by Christianson and other safe-driving advocates:
Get your car ready even before the weather gets too cold
"You have to start thinking about it now," Christianson said. "Otherwise the cold weather will catch you unprepared. The trick is to have your winter gear before the first snowfall, not afterward."
It's also a good idea to make an appointment at your local auto shop for a pre-winter checkup, especially if you're not mechanically inclined or a do-it-yourselfer.
"Get in there, get your car checked out ahead of time," said Doug Mayhew, manager of public and government affairs at the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).
"If you wait until that first snowfall, you'll be in line for a long time."
Stock your trunk
CAA recommends putting the following items in a storage container and leaving it in your car all year. This way, you'll always have them with you in case of an emergency.
- Winter gloves.
- Booster cables.
- Scraper and brush with a long handle.
- First aid kit.
- Extra clothing.
Clean all the snow off your car before driving
Remove the snow and ice from your vehicle's roof, hood, trunk, headlights and rear lights, and all windows, front and back.
"A sign of a good driver is one that dusts off all snow left on the car," Christianson said. “Otherwise you'll be creating a blizzard for the cars behind you."
Blowing snow is a common cause of winter accidents because it blinds drivers on the roads.
Don't tailgate, keep a safe distance back
Increase your distance from other cars by about three to four seconds when weather gets bad.
"Usually, drivers don't leave themselves enough space," Christianson said. "When you're driving too fast and when you're braking too late, you're not giving other people time to react."
Young Drivers recommends stopping early to give cars a chance to slow down behind you. When you're at a stop sign or a light, always leave some space in front of your own car, as well. If you see a vehicle accelerating toward you and not coming to a stop, then you will have the option of moving up, or away, to avoid a collision.
"Always have an escape route ready," Christianson said. "So when another driver takes the space you're counting on, you have space to get out."
Look and steer where you want to go
When your car spins out of control, your first reaction may be to do everything you can to stop it. In reality, you need to do very little. Young Drivers recommends putting the car in neutral and then looking and steering where you want to go. This will give the tires an opportunity to stop spinning and to regain contact with road.
"Most of the time, people panic and lock up the brakes," Christianson said. "The most important thing is to try and neutralize what you've done wrong."
Get your winter tires on early
In cold weather, and on ice and snow, winter tires provide more control and stability than all-season tires. The softer rubber compound of modern winter tires can perform in temperatures as cold as minus 40 C before hardening.
"The technology of winter tires is very different from all-season tires," said Rubber Association of Canada communications manager Gilles Paquette.
According to the association, winter tires provide superior braking, steering control and forward traction. These advantages kick into gear at 7 C, so even on cold late-autumn mornings a driver with winter tires will have a better, safer ride.
Besides the differences in the rubber compounds, winter tires also have tread patterns and sipes, small grooves that cross larger tread blocks, designed to push water aside and dig down through snow to the road surface.
"A more aggressive tread pattern gives a little bit more resistance," Paquette said. "It provides a better grip to the road, and maximizes the driver's ability to start, turn and stop."
Tire pressure, engine oil and block heater
Properly inflated tires ensure good contact with the road and protect the wheels from damage caused by potholes. It's important to check your owner's manual for the list of recommended pressures. Tire pressures drop over time as air leaks through pores in the rubber, especially in cold weather, so be sure to top up often. Some service stations are starting to offer nitrogen instead of compressed air, because it doesn't leak out of tires as quickly. You can also save money on fuel by keeping your tires properly inflated.
Oil doesn't wear out, but it does become contaminated with things like metal particles from engine components. Make sure you change your oil and filter in time for winter, and check the engine's dipstick each time you stop for gas. Even engines that are in good shape can consume some oil between each change.
If you live in the colder parts of the country, consider using a block heater to pre-warm your engine and make it easier to start. It only needs to be plugged in for a few hours before start-up, so hook it up to an electrical timer to save power.
Wipers and washer fluid
CAA recommends replacing wipers at least once a year, or installing special winter wipers for the cold weather.
"Wipers wear out. They're baking in the sun all summer so they get very hot and stick to the windshield," Mayhew said. "So each time you turn them on, each time you're scraping the bugs off your window in the summer, you lose a tiny part of the wiper each time."
And, it's always a good idea to keep an extra jug of windshield washer fluid in the trunk.
"It won't freeze and if it's sealed properly it won't leak. You don't want to be stuck with no fluid on a snowy day."
Batteries have a four- to six-year life expectancy. Cold weather does not damage the battery, as many people might think. But as the battery gets older, it loses its ability to store and release energy efficiently. Batteries also tend to produce less power in cold weather, which can make starting a car more difficult.
The CAA recommends replacing your battery after it is about four years old to avoid getting stuck with a flat battery on a cold day.
Cars don't need to warm up, only you do
Engine designs and materials have changed over time and motor oil has improved in quality, so there's no longer a need to "warm up" cars in the winter.
"Idling gets you no where," said Mayhew at the CAA. "The car itself really does not need much of a warm up at all. By the time you start the car, put on your seatbelt and check the mirrors, you're ready to go.
"It's totally wasteful of fuel."
Instead of warming up the car to provide heat for an elderly person or a child, make sure they are dressed appropriately for the weather conditions when they get into the car. That way, they'll be comfortable until the vehicle warms up, and they can discard hats and unzip coats to match the cabin temperature as the heater kicks in. There's a safety-related reason for this approach, too. If a car is in an accident or breaks down you'll likely lose the engine as a source of heat, so it's wise to dress for the weather.
- Main page
- Airline connections
- Airport security
- 10 tips for holiday globetrotters
- Alternative gifts
- Alternative winter getaways
- Alternative presentation ideas for holiday gifts
- Apartment hunting
- Inside ARGs
- Athletic shoes
- Auto arbitration
- Back-to-school shopping trends
- Barbecue tips for food
- Bargain flights
- Bottled water
- Carbon footprints
- Minimizing a trip's CO2 impact on the planet
- Cellphone breakout
- The pros and cons of unlocked handsets
- Cellphone chic
- Phones have become a fashion accessory
- Christmas tree safety
- Clear-out sales: How not to be taken
- Compulsive shopping
- Costly toys
- Counterfeit goods
- Cross-border shopping
- Cruise crime
- Cruise vacations
- Cultural diversity
- Dollar parity
- Donated Clothing (Part I)
- Donated Clothing (Part II)
- Dropping prices?
- Dryer safety
- Eco-friendly dying
- Environmentally friendly entertaining
- Father's Day
- Food: Canada's cuisine comes of age
- Funny fare
- Hunting down Canada's national food treasures
- Foie gras frenzy divides Chicago
- Fur: sustainable resource or fashion faux pas?
- Giving to charities
- Going solo
- Travel tips for women backpacking it alone
- Green cleaning
- Green gadgetry
- Green packaging
- Hearing Aids
- Helium: A disappearing gas?
- Hidden fees
- Holiday feasts
- Holiday shipping
- Holiday planning
- Home alone
- Hot destinations
- Year of the Asian vacation?
- Hot destinations
- Warm getaways that are off the beaten path
- Inflatable pools
- Identity theft
- Kids toys
- Learning toys
- Legal fees
- Long-distance flying
- Making connections
- Tips for getting online when travelling
- Making connections
- Phones to go
- Mothers' Day
- Pet food safety
- Pet food, alternatives
- Phone deregulation
- Plastic: What's in it, and is it safe?
- Recalls and advisories
- Redeeming rebates
- Refunds: How to get your money back
- Repelling mosquitoes
- Santa's knee: 10 tips on preparing kids to see the man in red
- Scooter sales rev up
- School bus safety
- School shopping
- Second-hand sales
- Smoke detectors
- Student survival guide
- Tips: Is your waiter playing mind games?
- Toy stereotypes
- Travel: Strategies to stretch your cash in Europe
- Water safety for kids
- Winterizing your car
- Year in review: Consumer Life 2006
- Your computer