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Winter presents challenges for drivers of vehicles

POSTED October 30, 2012 4:45 p.m.
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The recent rainfall should serve as a reminder to exercise extra safe driving practices during the next several months as we start experiencing weather elements like rain, fog and wind. The number of daylight hours will also be fewer, so morning and evening commutes will involve more hours of darkness.

Winter driving always poses more dangers than other times of the year. Inclement weather and reduced daylight hours affect visibility and wet roadways increase stopping distances. Driving during the winter is, without a doubt, more hazardous than other times of the year. The aforementioned conditions increase the chances of being involved in a collision.

Motorists can improve their driving safety by taking just a few simple steps to ensure that their vehicles are safe to operate in the rain, fog and evening hours. The first thing to do is replace windshield wipers. They generally do not last for more than one year, and if the vehicle is always outside, the wipers have a shorter lifetime. Wipers range in price from about $7 to $20, depending on their overall quality. They are easy to install and readily available in easy-fit sizes. It is also important to make sure that vehicle windshield defrosters are functioning properly. If there are problems with the defroster, there may be a considerable repair expense, but being able to see clearly when driving is so important that whatever the cost, the repairs must be made.

Headlights, tail lights, brake lights and dash lights should all be functioning properly. Dash lights can be a challenge to replace, and may require the services of a professional mechanic, but the other lights can usually be replaced at home. Non-functioning vehicle lights, especially those for the brakes, can lead to traffic collisions and should be checked frequently. Vehicles with only one headlight, for example, can be mistaken for a motorcycle. The reduced lighting leads to significantly reduced visibility. Many motorists switch to high beams to compensate for the lighting loss creating hazards for oncoming vehicles.

Tread depth on tires and having proper inflation is also important. Slick or "bald" tires are a major hazard in the rain or snow, so they should be replaced without delay. We also recommend that vehicle contain fire extinguishers, an inflated spare tire, a lug wrench, jack, blanket, flashlight and a first aid kit. The aforementioned items are particularly useful when traveling anywhere outside of the local city limits. Assistance may take an extended amount of time for motorists who break down in rural areas, so it is important to be prepared.

Another good practice is that of keeping a minimum of a half-tank full of fuel at all times. Fuel gauges can sometimes be faulty, so keeping enough fuel in the tank can help keep you from an unpleasant surprise. Empty space in a fuel tank also tends to increase the chances of water accumulating in your vehicle's fuel system; contaminated fuel can cause the engine to fail or lead to costly repairs. Water vapor condenses out of the air space in the tank, and for that reason alone, especially during winter months; I try to keep my vehicle's fuel tank as full as possible. Also, in the case of an emergency where you may find yourself stuck roadside in circumstances when you need heat to stay warm, it is handy to have plenty of fuel to get you through the situation. I was once stuck in the Sierras for eight hours in heavy snow when the road I was on was shut down. There was nowhere to go and gas stations were far away. I was grateful to have nearly a full tank of fuel in the vehicle that day.

If you decide to drive to the snow, have tire chains that you have checked for fit, know how to install them and be extra careful when driving in frozen areas. Black ice blends in with the roadway and can make for a scary and dangerous surprise when driving over it. Motorists who do not know how to drive in snow and ice are a particular hazard, so it pays to keep a greater distance from others when driving in these conditions. Keep emergency supplies in the car as well, like warm clothing and snow boots, some food, flashlights, road flares and the like.

Most of what I have described in this column is a matter of common sense, but things around this time of year get busy and people tend to forget about basic issues like preparing for winter driving. I wish everyone a safe winter!

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