Eight winter driving tips from local auto experts
Winter driving is challenging for many Vermonters — and for their cars. Without proper preparation, a driver could easily find themselves sliding down an icy incline or turning the key in the ignition on a frigid morning, with no luck.
Vermont Edition brought together local auto experts to share tips for winter driving and car maintenance. Here are some of our favorite pieces of advice.
Clear off all the snow-- yes, all of it.
Clearing all the snow off your vehicle before driving is crucial for your safety and for others on the road. "Clean off your mirrors, clean off your front end and rear windshield. The peekaboo drivers are definitely not a good thing," said Steve Belitsos, a retired automotive and transportation services professor at Vermont State University. Make sure to get all that snow off the top of your car, too.
Opt for snow tires, not all-season tires
All-season tires and snow tires might seem similar to the untrained eye, but don't be fooled. All-season tires work well for people in moderate climates. But once the snow and ice hits, you're going to want your snows. They're made from a more flexible rubber that helps you grip the road. Plus, their deeper tread patterns and depth "kicks the snow out as they're spinning, whereas narrow tread, all-season tires would tend to pack up the snow," Belitsos explained.
If you're buying used snows, check the tread
Buying used snow tires off a neighbor is a great way to save money. But before you Venmo, check the tread. John Paul with AAA Northeast suggests the quarter test: Take a quarter and stick it in the tread. If it comes up at least halfway on George Washington's head, you're good to go.
Paul also suggests finding out the age of the tires. "You don't want to put a tire on the car that's more than 10 years old," he advised. You can find a date code on the side of most tires.
Lastly, make sure all your tires have equal tread ware. "If your tread has worn down to different depths on different tires, the gears in your transmission and your differential are turning at different speeds," said Demeny Pollitt, the owner of Girlington Garage in South Burlington. "They're not designed to mesh that way, so you can actually do damage to your transmission or your differential."
Consider an undercoat
No, it's not a base layer you wear under your jacket. "It's something that you spray on the bottom of the vehicle," Pollitt said, "to protect it from the horrible salt that we put on the roads." Salt leads to rust, which leads to rot. Most undercoats need to be applied every 12-18 months, but they can help save your car from a sad, rusty death.
If an undercoat isn't in the cards for you, Belitsos said to take your car for regular undercarriage washes at a good car wash.
Don't forget about your car
Speaking of rust — winter isn't the time to let your car languish. Leaving a car sitting on the street with snow and salt can lead to rust buildup. Pollitt said she often sees cars fail their inspections due to rusted brakes. "You get rust on your brakes from not driving enough," she said. For people who drive less than 12,000 miles a year, she suggested driving at least a couple times a week at a speed of at least 40 miles per hour, and giving those brakes a little exercise.
Be wary of remote starts
"I'm just not a fan," Belitsos admitted. "Think about fuel mileage. How many miles are you going when your car is sitting in your driveway idling away? Zero." Idling also has negative environmental impacts.
Frequently preheating and cooling your vehicle before you drive also puts some extra stress on your engine, which could ultimately shorten its lifespan.
If you're a new winter driver — practice!
There's no shame in heading to an empty parking lot on a wintery day to practice your winter driving, especially if you're new to the region or you have a new car you're not used to. "See what the antilock brakes are going to feel like," said AAA's John Paul. "If you've never felt antilock brakes pulsate, it could catch you by surprise."
Paul also suggested practicing what it would be like to steer into the direction of a skid. For example, if you're turning right and your car is skidding straight, you should continue steering right. "You don't want to step on the break. You don't want to step on the gas. You don't want to panic," he said. "Look where you want the car to go. Your hands tend to follow your eyes."
Pack a winter emergency kit
Many of us keep snacks in the car, but a bag of Doritos isn't going to help you if you get stuck in a snowy ditch. John Paul with AAA suggests keeping a small snow shovel in the car, along with flares or reflective triangles, warm clothes, a blanket, and sand or kitty litter to help with traction.
Because when it comes to winter driving in our region, you're better off safe than sorry.
Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.