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Safety

Seven steps to safe winter driving Add to ...

Winter hadn’t arrived yet, but that didn’t stop Canadian Tire from letting me drive some winter-prepared cars around an arena earlier this month to get a head start.

You’ve hopefully considered and purchased winter tires. The noticeable tread patterns will give you added traction on snow and ice. The biggest changes in technology, however, deliver what isn’t so apparent: rubber compound.

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This is about temperature, not snow. Those all-seasons that probably came with your car are too brittle once you get below 7 degrees Celsius. The way a hockey puck hurtles across the rink, those stiff tires travel the same way. Even at low speeds (20 km/h), we were seeing improved stopping distances in the 35 per cent range. We were testing Goodyear’s Nordic Winter tires (currently starting at $86.99 each), but a little research will show you an large range of makes and prices for your car.

Consider a few more things, many of them costing very little while providing notably increased safety:

Winter wiper blades – like winter tires – are comprised of a rubber compound that stays softer in cold temperatures. The frame of the blade should also be sheathed to prevent snow and ice build-up. They adhere better to your windshield. The most noticeable difference? No streaking, especially dangerous at night when a windshield smeared with ice and snow can dangerously reduce your visibility. Sold one to a pack (many cars require two different sizes), most are easy to put on. You can spend as much as you want, but you can get good winter blades for under $20 each.

Winter-rated washed fluid; don’t be fooled by labels that seem to represent what your thermometer says. It’s the wind-chill factor you want to be aware of, so that minus-45 degrees isn’t extreme, it’s what you need. Canadian Tire recommends draining your reservoir (see your owner’s manual) and refilling with the appropriate fluid. As road conditions can also change very quickly, it’s a good idea to carry an extra jug for emergency top-ups.

Headlights: Now you can see, make sure you can be seen. Headlights dim over time, and accumulated snow and ice severely reduce your visibility to others. Replace any burned-out bulbs, make sure your full lighting harness is on when required, and make sure you’re not cruising around with just your daytime running lights on. This time of year more than ever, you need your rear lit up; don’t forget your ‘auto’ setting on your headlight stem, or better yet, just use your full lights all the time.

We’re keeping our cars longer, which means all the components are going to need more regular attention. As your car ages, headlight covers can become scratched and dulled. If there’s a true car buff on your list, Meguiar’s Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit ($36.99) is essentially a sander and polisher. The demonstration showed noticeable results, though its appeal will be to the real do-it-your-selfers.

Emergency Kit: In Canada, most of us are aware we should be carrying some form of emergency kit come winter. While Canadian Tire has assembled the obvious items in a handy carry-all (flashlight, jumper cables, tire sealant, snowbrush, collapsible shovel, first aid kit), there’s nothing you can’t put together on your own. I’d add a blanket and chocolate, as well as a pair of snow boots. You never know when you’re going to have to push. A nice component of the various pre-assembled kits? Canadian Tire throws in a year-long membership to their Roadside Assistance Program with purchase of their kits, which start at $29.99.

Check your battery: Like tires, and cars in general, batteries have come a long way. According to Graham Jeffery, spokesman for Canadian Tire, batteries generally have a lifespan of around five years. He recommends getting it checked annually after the three-year mark, to locate dead cells before they leave you stranded. When you visit your mechanic, ask them to perform a simple test to check the battery; you’ll get a printout showing you what’s going on inside that sealed unit.

Driving Shoes: With winter comes winter boots, and instructors will tell you to change from your winter boots to driving shoes; that ends up being a perfect-world suggestion for an imperfect real-world application.

While big snowmobile boots keep you warm and dry while cleaning your car off, those same wide-toed monsters can prove deadly around your pedals. With little working space, it’s just too easy to catch both pedals with a single foot, or for them to get jammed beneath. Forgo the clumpy: head to a hiking or outdoors store and look for smaller, narrower boots rated for cold climates. I have some by Merrell that are narrower, flexible and warm. They cost a little more, but they last for years and years.

Every year, it seems the first blast of winter catches too many drivers by surprise. Get your car ready, make sure anyone who drives it is ready to adapt their driving habits, and let’s stay out of the ditches.

Send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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