The Mid-Atlantic area can be a bit finicky when it comes to wintry weather. Some years we receive multiple blizzards, while other years nary a snowflake falls. Sometimes freezing rain turns highways into skating rinks. It pays to drive cautiously in all conditions, and this article describes some tips to follow if you find a yourself on a slick road.
Preparation is key. Now is the time to “winterize” your car. A certified mechanic should check your car’s ignition system, fuel system, brakes, exhaust system, wiper blades, tire tread, defroster, cooling system, lights, and antifreeze. You should make sure you are using the proper grade of oil, and might consider purchasing snow tires (and/or snow chains) if you plan on traveling frequently on snowy roads.
Always know what conditions will be like before heading out. Although weather forecasters don’t have a perfect track record in the Mid-Atlantic, you can at least get the most updated weather conditions on the Internet from sites such as the Weather Channel. In Colorado, locals joke “don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” Weather conditions can change rapidly in the D.C. area as well. On any given day, precipitation might change from rain to snow to freezing rain. Thunderstorms are even a possibility in the winter - believe it or not, local resorts such as Whitetail have had to shut down lifts and slopes temporarily due to lightning activity.
Before starting a trip, make sure you have a full tank of gas. During the winter, it’s always wise to keep your gas tank at least half full, as this will minimize condensation in the tank. You’ll want to make sure your windshield wiper fluid reservoir is full - an 18-wheeler truck passing by on a salty, slushy road is sure to leave your windshield covered with grime. You might want to keep a gallon of wiper fluid in the trunk as well. (Be sure to use blue wiper fluid in the winter, and red in the summer. The blue wiper fluid contains antifreeze.)
When you park your car, consider extending the windshield wiper blades. This will prevent them from freezing to the windshield - particularly if freezing rain showers down on your car while you’re skiing on the slopes. An ice scraper should be standard fare in your trunk.
While most new cars have anti-lock brakes, few people realize that they don’t help you brake. They allow you to retain steering control of the vehicle while in a skid, but they do not allow you to brake faster. If your car does have anti-lock brakes, never pump the brake pedal - apply continuous pressure to the brakes so the anti-lock brakes can kick in and do the pumping for you. Be cautious of ice patches and slippery conditions and adjust your speed accordingly so you have time to react and stop if necessary.
Many sports utility owners feel invincible in the snow, but some studies indicate that heavy four-wheel drive vehicles might fare worse in slippery conditions, due to extra weight and a higher center of gravity, which contributes to flipping. Four-wheel drive can help you power through deep snow, but don’t let this lead to a false sense of security.
Cell phones are practically ubiquitous now, and it makes good sense to keep one in your vehicle for emergencies. If your car breaks down or you become stranded in bad weather, a cell phone or CB radio can save the day.
If your vehicle breaks down or becomes stranded in a winter storm, try to pull off to the side of the highway. If you have a cellular phone or CB, try to contact the State Police. Otherwise, be patient until a fellow motorist, road crew, or State Trooper drives by. Bundle up to stay warm, and stay in your car until help arrives. Many people have ventured away from their car, only to become disoriented and lost and ultimately die from exposure. In severe blizzards, visibility can be limited to inches. While in your car, if you get cold, you can run your engine periodically with the heat on, but be sure to crack open a window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Keep a blanket, snacks, water, and reading material in your trunk. Jumper cables, a first aid kit, flashlights, ice scraper, extra oil and windshield wiper fluid are also good to have.
Ski resorts rarely close, regardless of weather, but roads leading to them can be shut down. Always call a resort before planning a visit in bad weather to ensure that the resort is operating, and that roads leading to the resort are cleared and treated. In some cases, freezing rain or high winds can force a resort to temporarily close its lifts. Some of the best skiing is found at resorts in the middle of a snowstorm, when the trails are empty and covered with a fresh layer of snow after each lift ride. But remember that those layers of snow are covering the roads, too - it’s often safer to spend the night at a nearby hotel than to risk driving home. (You can ski a bit the next day, too.)
When you do get home, and your car is covered with salt, drive over to the local car wash as soon as temperatures are above freezing. The salt used to treat roads can eat away at the metal parts of your car, so it’s best to wash it off as soon as possible.
The best winter driving tip is to stay home. If you must venture out, some preparation and common sense can go a long way towards ensuring that you have a safe trip.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
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