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This is our first Canadian winter. We're thinking of doing a road trip and could use some tips to stay safe when driving. – Aki in Hamilton, Ont.

A key to safe winter driving is making sure your vehicle is ready for the season. When bad weather hits, many motorists scramble to action and garages get busy.

A winter maintenance checkup is essential to ensure the battery, lights, brakes, steering, heaters and other key components are functioning properly. Switching to winter tires is also important – and in Quebec, it's mandatory.

"Many people don't realize that the rubber compound in an all-season tire is very different than a tire that is designed for the winter," says Natalie Dupuis, senior product manager, auto, at RBC Insurance. "Winter tires stay flexible when it gets colder, whereas the others don't, so there's a difference in the gripping and the performance of the tire. When people buy all-season tires they think they're ready for winter, but not necessarily – especially if you're in an area that does get a lot of snow and changes in temperature."

If you're caught by weather or something happens to your vehicle, you need to keep warm until help arrives, so pack an appropriate emergency kit. For local driving, booster cables and a flashlight may suffice. For longer trips, add a shovel, blanket, extra clothing, emergency food, water, matches, flares, a brush/scraper, first-aid kit and bags of sand or salt.

Before heading out, make sure your cellphone is charged, and that you have enough fuel. Check the weather conditions. Don't dash off with snow and ice on your windshield – take time to defrost and make sure you can actually see outside.

Prevention is key, but if you are involved in a winter fender-bender or more serious accident, there are some things to keep in mind.

"Always, but in winter especially because of reduced visibility and the shortened daylight, make sure you alert other motorists to the fact that you've had an accident or if something else happens and your vehicle is disabled," says Dupuis. "Try to pull your car out of the path of other vehicles, put the four-way hazards on, put the hood up on the car – anything you can to give visibility to the fact that there's been an incident and others should slow down and be careful.

"Don't stand directly in front of or behind your vehicle, in case they can't stop or don't see you and you become involved in a secondary accident. It's a good reason to carry road flares, especially in highway situations; you can set them up until help arrives to give a zone of protection around your vehicle."

In the event of an accident, try to stay calm, and keep yourself and others safe. If someone is injured and your cell is working, seek emergency help by calling 911.

Tow trucks are often quick to arrive at the scene and, if the situation permits, before your vehicle is taken away, contact your insurance company for advice. In any event, make sure you obtain information about the tow truck company and where it's taking your vehicle.

"Depending on the situation, if it is a small accident and you're moved over to the side of the road – while you're waiting and after you've called your insurance company, exchange information with the other driver if a second vehicle is involved. If you have a cellphone capable of taking photos, it's a good idea so you have that information handy after," says Dupuis.

When the weatherperson says to stay indoors and avoid unnecessary travel, that's usually the best advice to follow. If you really must drive, give yourself extra time so you're not tempted to go faster than is safe for conditions.

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