The Time Is Now

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

August 21, 2009 5 min read

It's hard to say goodbye to summer, but as every motorist north of the Sun Belt knows, it's just a matter of time before you'll be driving on rain-slicked streets, not to mention ice and snow-covered highways.

If you're savvy, you won't wait for that first flake to melt on your windshield to get your car in shape for winter driving. In fact, the best time to start the process is now.

"If vehicles are not adequately prepared for winter, driving can be more stressful and treacherous. To ensure safety and reliability during the upcoming winter months, it's best to take a proactive approach to preventative maintenance while the temperatures are still mild," said Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council, part of a consumer campaign to help people be more aware of their cars and the care they need.

Unfortunately, according to a study the council conducted, most motorists aren't ready. More than 70 percent admit that they do not have their cars winterized in preparation for inclement weather, even though below-freezing temperatures can stress out both a vehicle and its driver.

If you don't want to be lumped into that statistic, here are some things you can do now -- and a few you can wait to do before the snow flies:

* Stock up: Now is the time to create a winter car emergency kit. It could save your life if you get stuck on the road when the temperature drops. The basics include:

-- Jumper cables

-- An ice scraper, snow brush and folding shovel

-- A flashlight with fresh batteries

-- A blanket, hand warmers, extra clothing -- including heavy gloves, a hat, socks and boots -- and a rain poncho

-- Candles and safety matches

-- Bottled water and high-energy dried food snacks

-- A first aid kit

-- Flares, a whistle and tow rope

-- Plastic garbage bags, hose bandage, tire sealant and small tools -- including pliers, screwdrivers and a utility knife.

Make sure you have plenty of window washer solvent, too.

If you're going on a long trip or regularly do a lot of distance driving -- especially on less-traveled roads -- you should double up on the snacks, water, blankets and clothing, and be sure to take extra prescription medication in case you face an extended wait for help. Every vehicle should stash two inexpensive plastic "Call Police" or "Call Tow" emergency banners in the glove compartment. They can be placed in the front and rear windows to alert other drivers to your plight.

* Check up: Now is also the time to look at all things mechanical and structural on your car -- including the heater, defroster, interior lights, headlights, belts, the exhaust system and the battery and charging system. Have your car put on a lift so that a technician can inspect the trunk and floorboards. They should watch out for small holes that create a pathway for deadly carbon monoxide fumes to enter the passenger compartment.

"Also check to see if your spark plugs and battery need replacing. You don't want to have a stalled vehicle in the dead of winter," advises a "Preparing For Winter" online advisory from Mr. Lube Canada at mrlube.com, the Canadian chain of franchised auto service centers. "If your battery is more than two years old, take it to your technician to have the charging system completely checked. Older batteries are less likely to start in winter temperatures than newer ones."

Since cold weather magnifies existing performance problems, you should take the time now to eyeball fuel, air and transmission filters -- or, even better, get a complete tune-up. An inspection of brakes and tires should also be on your must-do list. It's also a good time to have the car waxed to protect the finish from the elements.

If you live in an area subject to sub-zero weather or heavy snow and ice, switch to lighter motor oil for easier start-ups and less wear and tear on the engine. You may also want to replace your regular wipers with a rubber-clad winter version that prevents the snow and ice from clogging the blades. While all-weather tires work well in any climate, if your streets are filled with ice and snow, shift to studded snow tires.

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