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Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Snow ... Drive to Survive
by Marc Eisenson

I couldn't begin to count the number of times my life has been in jeopardy because of lousy, bad weather drivers ... myself included. A recent close call occurred on a perfectly beautiful November night. The pavement was dry, and the sky was clear. It was just a bit past midnight and freezing cold. We didn't hit anything ... and nobody hit us. Our car simply "died." We have a car phone for emergencies ... and called for help. It just took forever and a half for help to arrive.

Nancy was appropriately bundled up, but I was not. As I pondered the various gizmos under the hood that can suddenly quit in a car, I began to shiver so much that I really thought I might freeze to death. The cavalry didn't come to rescue me, but our friend, Roger Darby did. Nancy remembered recently putting the big down jacket we inherited from Roger, into the trunk of our Chevy. It may have saved my life!

In these here parts, winter is the most dangerous time of year to be on the road. Invest a little bit of time now in learning how to become a better bad weather driver. It might save your life.

1. Prepare for the worst. Is your car in good working order? Check the brakes, battery, belts, filters, lights, tires, windshield wipers and fluid, anti-freeze, and gas ... use gas line de-icer and try to keep the tank at least half filled. Don't be like Nancy and me -- get your winter maintenance done before you have to spend an all-nighter waiting for your car to be resurrected.

2. Don't start your journey ... until the snow and ice are cleared from your hood, lights, windows, roof, trunk, and license plates. If you can't see, you shouldn't be driving. And sheets of snow blowing off the hood will blind you ... or the driver behind you.

3. Can you jump? Get yourself a good set of jumper cables and learn how to use them. The cheap cables in supermarkets and even auto supply houses are too lightweight to handle the heavy load of today's cars ... especially when winter cold slices the battery's energy in half and increases the load on your engine.

As a former electrician, I suggest copper cables whose "gauge" is listed as 6 or less (the higher the number, the thinner the wire). So where can you find heavy duty cables? Sometimes at junk yards, at rock bottom prices.

4. Carry a cold weather tool kit. In addition to the personal life savers listed below, and good jumper cables, every car should have an ice scraper, a shovel, sand, salt, or cat litter for traction, a colorful flag to announce surrender to the elements, flares to warn other drivers, a motor club card, and a CB radio or cellular phone. True, there won't be much room in your trunk, or for passengers, but trust me, it'll be worth it.

5. A lamp to light the night. Don't forget to have a flashlight in the glove compartment, and remember to test the batteries regularly.

On the subject of lights, if you should get stuck, you can leave your dome light on, as well as your hazard lights, while you wait for help to arrive. Both use very little power and won't drain a battery in good working order. In fact, even a weak battery will keep those lights going for quite a while.

6. Practice. First chance you get every year, find a large, deserted icy parking lot to practice ice driving skills. If the truth be told, the older I get, the more I prefer heading to a warmer climate where ice is no problem. But rain and fog can follow you anywhere, so ...

7. Take it slow. Whether you're facing rain, fog, snow, or ice, you're far less likely to have an accident if you're traveling slowly. On wet roads, drive 5-10 mph slower than usual. In snow, cut your speed in half. On ice, crawl.

While driving over bridges and through shady spots, be especially alert for ice. These areas freeze earlier and stay frozen longer than the rest of the roadbed.

Slow down before you hit curves or go down hills -- ideally by letting up on the gas and/or driving in low. You don't want to make any sudden moves on slippery roads. Gradual is the watchword -- whether you're accelerating, slowing down, or braking.

8. Make yourself visible. Truckers do it. School bus drivers do it. Some new cars give you no choice but to do it. It's time for you to do it, too. Day or night, but especially in bad weather, turning on your headlights will make your car easier to see.

9. Make THEM visible too. When they're dirty, your headlights could be giving off only 10% of their brightness. So keep yours clean. Even normal driving causes a dirt build-up that can cut your lights' output in half. Every time you squeegee the windshield, do the front and back lights, too.

Two other light warnings: 1) Use low beams in fog, heavy rain, or snow. Brights will reflect back into your eyes ... reducing visibility. 2) Don't forget to turn your lights off when you arrive at your destination, or a dead battery may greet you upon your return.

10. Maintain a "space cushion." In bad weather, you need a lot of extra space between you and the car ahead. On snow or ice, you could travel three to twelve times further than usual before your car stops. For example, under the best conditions, you'll need about 75 feet -- 5 car lengths -- to come to a complete stop if you're doing 30 mph. On a snowy road at that speed, figure on at least 15 car lengths to stop (225 feet).

11. Summertime, and the skidding is easy. You don't need winter weather to get into a skid. After a dry spell, a light drizzle brings oil to the surface, making roads slick ... and cars skid on slick surfaces.

Nancy and I once got into a terrible skid, thanks to an oil slick. Fortunately, there were no other cars near us on the highway, because we had the pleasure of a 360 degree spin. We hit the guard rail twice. The car got a bit mashed, but we came away unscathed. If a car had been close behind us ... this issue would be dedicated to Nancy's memory, and maybe mine.

12. Postpone panic. On icy roads, try switching to the lowest gear you have ... before you enter a curve or head down a hill. It should keep your speed in check, sans brakes. If you find yourself going into a skid, try not to panic. It won't help. Neither will slamming on the brakes, which will just increase the danger. What to do?

Forget everything you were taught about going in the direction of the skid. That was too confusing. All you have to do is gently steer the car in the direction you want to go. It's as simple as that. Honest.

If you have to slow down or stop on an icy patch, tap the brakes lightly -- unless you have antilock brakes, in which case, you should maintain a firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal -- and see tip #19.

Some day, you'll be stuck in snow, mud, or sand

13. Freeing yourself. Try moving forward very slowly (in drive, not low ... your wheels are less likely to spin). Point your front wheels straight ahead. With snow, shoveling in front and behind each wheel, as well as under the car, may help.

14. Freeing yourself, Part 2. I've recently read, and just tried, putting my emergency brake on slightly to reduce wheel spinning. It seems that on some cars, this will return power to both drive wheels ... as if you had a vehicle with traction control. I wasn't convinced it helped, although Nancy thought it did. Let me know what you think, and don't forget to release the emergency brake once you're back on the road.

15. Freeing yourself, Part 3. Next, you can try "rocking." Here's my method: I gently press on the accelerator as I shift from low to reverse. Do it slowly, and not for long. If you get some forward or backward momentum ... great! Just keep on truckin'.

Warnings: It's dangerous to rock a car with people trying to push. And on the subject of digging and pushing, it's counter-productive to exert yourself so much that a heart attack stops your engine!

16. Yet more on freeing yourself. Try to get some traction by putting something like cat litter or sand under your drive wheels. Again, if you get going, don't stop until you're out of the muck and mire, or you may get stuck again.

No dice? There are times when your best bet is to be towed out. Although I've been known to jack up my car and put boards underneath the wheels, a tow is far easier, especially if you belong to a motor club.

17. Sometimes, it pays to get heavy. We have rear wheel drive, and load the trunk with weight. Given our herd of 5 stray cats (as of this writing), we go for several 50-pound bags of cat litter. They help steady the car and come in handy when we get stuck. No cats? You can use substitutes like sand or cinder blocks, or donate the cat litter to the ASPCA in the spring.

18. If you're stranded during a snowstorm, stay in your car. The conventional wisdom says you should run the engine and heater for very short periods and always "crack" the downwind window for ventilation.

Last time Nancy and I got stuck in a snowstorm, it was about 4 AM (don't ask). We couldn't see, and the roads were really terrible. We decided to pull off the highway until daybreak, when the snow was expected to stop and the plows would be out. We chose to crack a window, and keep the engine on the whole time -- which sure kept us warm and meant we didn't have to wonder whether the car would start, or not.

A great source of heat is body movement. Move those arms and legs, take deep breaths, clap those hands ... keep active and if you're alone, awake. If you're not alone, post sentinels ... make sure someone is awake at all times.

Warning: Carbon monoxide (CO) can build up if the exhaust system has leaks, the tailpipe is clogged, or the vehicle is boxed in by snow drifts. CO is odorless, invisible, and deadly. You'd never know.

Closed or snow blocked windows can cut off your oxygen supply -- and a car buried in snow won't be seen by rescue crews. So keep your car as free of snow as possible.

19. Safety devices can kill. While it's true that antilock brake systems (ABS) save lives, improper use of them may cause as many accidents as they prevent. Because some drivers don't know how to use ABS correctly, they "pump their brakes," just as they were taught to do in cars with the old-fashioned kind of brakes. Despite the fact that ABS may set up a nerve racking vibration when held down, that's normal. They should be held down ... not pumped.

20. A few tricks. To avoid a frozen emergency brake, park on a level surface and leave the car in gear (standard) or park (automatic). If the emergency brake is frozen, try releasing it by driving a short distance in reverse.

Got a frozen door lock? Heat the key with a match or lighter. If you use that lock de-icer stuff, don't keep it in the glove compartment. Try to pick a spot you'll remember in the house or garage. (Guess why.)

21. The best tip of all. Stay home (or wherever you are). Wait for the weather and roads to clear before you hit the highway. You're unlikely to get into a car accident if you're nowhere near a car.

Nancy and I were reminded of this yet again the other day. We set out when we should have stayed put. Will we ever learn? We're trying -- this time, at least we had the sense to turn around.

22. Dial 911. If you must get somewhere important, like the hospital, call for emergency assistance. The police are trained and equipped to brave the storm as safely as possible.

23. 4 X 4's. I love 'em but look out! They won't prevent a skid on ice any better than a 2-wheel drive vehicle, and they have an annoying tendency to flip over. Drive just as carefully in your Bronco, Jeep, or Trooper as you would in a Chevy, Plymouth, or Volvo.

And finally

24. Drive sober ... or don't drive at all. You really need your wits about you when driving ... winter, spring, summer, fall ... day or night.

The Pocket Change Investor
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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor © 1997, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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