How to Winterize Your Car

Joanne Helperin

We don't think of the United States as a "cold country," like Russia, Switzerland, or even Canada, but nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in snowy regions.* Even those who live in areas like Southern California often drive to the snow just to see and ski in the white stuff.

Winterizing your car early can save you stress later.

Unfortunately, the snow, slush, and ice that forms on U.S. roadways causes more than 1,300 deaths and 116,800 injuries in vehicle crashes annually. Even fender benders are more common in the winter, when it's slippery. How can you prevent becoming a statistic? All it takes is a little preparation.

Tired Tires?

The saying, "Tires are your most important safety feature," is as true today as it was when Ford designed the Model T. Few people, though, pay attention to their tires on a regular basis. So before the worst of winter hits, be sure to check these three critical elements:
  • Type: If you're going to be in snowy weather, you need snow tires (and chains for extreme conditions) or excellent all-season tires.
  • Tread: Tread should be at least 1/16 of an inch. Worn treads negatively affect stopping distance and vehicle control, so replace worn tires immediately. For my money, I'd patronize a business that specializes in tires. And don't forget the spare!
  • Inflation: Under-inflated tires risk blowout and reduce gas mileage. Proper inflation offers the highest level of protection.
Get a Pro to Service Your Car

You or someone in your family may be a great DIYer, but for a really thorough job, get your car serviced by a reliable professional. Whether you go to a dealership or a local mechanic, make sure your vehicles get routine maintenance and ask to have the following checked for winter:
  • Leaks
  • Hoses (for wear)
  • Battery - the battery itself, plus connections
  • Cooling and heating systems
  • All facets of braking system
  • Windshield reservoir and wipers (replace wipers up to twice a year)
  • Floor mats, to make sure nothing can get caught under your pedals (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) has a comprehensive Winter Driving Tips slideshow that I highly recommend. It details what to inspect, how to handle winter driving, and other safety reminders.

Oh Say, Can You See?

The winter nights means more people driving in the dark, especially after work, making good headlights even more important. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that most vehicles' headlights need improvement.

"One vehicle owner commented to us recently that her SUV should have come with a seeing-eye dog, because the headlights are so poor," said Russ Rader, IIHS SVP of Communications.

Poor headlight illumination has become such a problem that the IIHS is now including headlight ratings in its determination of its famous Top Safety Picks.

A quick fix? Try the inexpensive headlight restoration kits made by Sylvania or Rain-X. There are other kits that require drilling and sanding; these two just require elbow grease.

If your headlights still aren't giving you the illumination you need, Rader recommends using your high beams as much as possible, so long as there isn't a lot of oncoming traffic.

Pack the Right Tools

Nobody expects to get stuck on the road. Consider putting the following in a bag in the trunk as insurance:
  • Ice scraper for the windshield, and small broom
  • Sand or kitty litter for getting out of snow
  • Foldable camping shovel
  • Tire chains and snow strap
  • Mylar blanket and a wool hat
These items are in addition to the usual items you should stock in a vehicle emergency kit, such as jumper cables, flares, and so on. You can make a kit yourself or buy one ready-packed. I also find it handy to have a tool to clean the inside of the windshield for the mornings when – even in my warmer climate – the condensation makes it tough to see clearly.

Consult the "Bible"

The most important recommendation of all is to look through your vehicle's owner's manual. It's your vehicle's "Bible," and you should go to it for guidance for everything from proper tire pressure to what kind of antifreeze to use – even before you check the Internet. You may even find features ("I didn't know it could do that!") used to handle winter weather or emergencies. Pull it out of the glove compartment or visit the vehicle manufacturer's website and give it the attention it deserves, so you're not left out in the cold.

* U.S. Federal Highway Administration

Joanne Helperin is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor and marketer. Dubbed "The Research Queen" by friends and family, she’s known for leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of stories on health, business, news, technology, and lifestyle. She has written for digital, print and broadcast for more than 20 years.