No breakdowns: The ‘Car Talk’ guide to winter maintenance

If you have a car on campus, you’d be wise to follow these guidelines for winter driving and maintenance. Auto repair experts Tom and Ray Tappet of NPR’s Car Talk tell you how to keep your car running and your passengers safe until spring.

Make sure your battery and charging system are up to par. Your mechanic should check the battery, charging system and belts. If you find that you need a new battery, get the most powerful battery that will fit in your car. Two things to remember about batteries: first, the battery that started your car easily in the summer may not have enough power to do it in winter, when the oil isn’t as “fluid” as it was last July; second, batteries lose power as the temperature drops. Not only do you need more power to start the car in winter, you also get less power from the same battery.

Check the cooling system, making certain the antifreeze will protect your car to the winter temperatures you’ll experience in your area. For most areas, you’ll need a 50-50 mix of coolant to water. Most gas stations will check the mix for you in a couple of minutes.

If your coolant hasn’t been changed in several years, get the cooling system flushed. The rust inhibitors in antifreeze break down over time and need to be renewed. Plus, draining out the coolant and refilling the system removes dirt and rust particles that can clog up the cooling system and cause problems in winter and summer.

Make sure your windshield wipers are in good shape. Winter wipers — with the rubber coverings that keep ice from collecting on the blade — have become very popular. They’re helpful in the winter, but make sure you take them off in the spring. Winter wipers are heavy, and if you use them all summer, you’ll eventually wear out the wiper motor.

Keep your gas tank close to full. In the winter, if you get stuck or stranded, the engine will be your only source of heat. Make sure you have enough gas to heat your car until help arrives.

Make sure your windshield washer reservoir is full. On a snowy or messy day, you can easily go through half a gallon of fluid trying to keep your windshield clear. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to keep some extra fluid in the trunk in case you run out.

Make sure your rear window defroster works.

Know your car. Every car has different handling characteristics. You should know what your car can and cannot do in the snow. You should know if it has anti-lock brakes and traction control, how they work, and how they help. In fact, you should practice using these features in an empty parking lot before you have to use them on the roads.

Make sure you have some basic supplies in your car in case you do get stuck. Invest in a substantial snow brush and an ice-scraper. It’s good to have a shovel and a bag of sand to help with traction, and the aforementioned extra windshield washer fluid. A blanket is a good idea — just in case. If you have any winter clothes you don’t wear anymore, especially an old pair of boots, keep them in the trunk, too.

You can’t see through snow, so make this “pre-flight check” before every winter car trip:

Once snow or ice does arrive, take some extra time to make sure your car is clean and your visibility is good. Clear off the entire car, not just the windshield. Make sure every glass surface is clear and transparent by using a snow brush and/or ice scraper. Your sideview mirrors and all lights should be brushed and cleared as well. Now, clean the snow off the rest of the car. If you don’t, the rest of the snow will either slide off the roof and cover your windshield as you’re slowing down; or fly off onto someone else’s windshield and cause him or her to lose visibility.

When driving in the snow, do everything slowly. Don’t ever get lulled into a false sense of security. Do everything slowly and gently. Remember, in the snow, the tires are always just barely grabbing the road. Accelerate slowly and gently, turn slowly and gently and brake slowly and gently. To do this, you have to anticipate turns and stops. Go slowly and leave plenty of distance between you and other cars. Rapid movements lead to skids and loss of control.

If you’re nervous about driving in winter, consider spending some time practicing. Go to an empty parking lot and try sending the car into a little skid on purpose. Slam on the brakes, then practice turning into the skid and see what happens — and practice until you’re comfortable regaining control.

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