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By Jim Kerr

With school holiday breaks and Christmas family reunions, highways are going to be busy around the holiday season. It’s also the time of year when cold weather and slippery roads make driving a challenge. In addition, vehicles seem to develop more problems as temperatures drop. This may be only a misconception, but there is no doubt that vehicle problems in cold weather are more difficult to deal with. The people at Bridgestone Tire are familiar with winter driving, having made their Blizzak tires a familiar name in winter traction and they have several suggestions to make your winter travels safer and more enjoyable.

Safety should always come first. Start with the tires by checking tire pressures. Cold weather will cause pressures to drop, so you need to bring them back to normal recommended pressures. While you are there, check the tread depth. Minimum tread depth is 2/32 of an inch. While this would be fine on dry pavement, it won’t provide traction on snow or winter ice. You should have a minimum of about half of full tread depth or about 6/32 of an inch. Winter tires provide far superior traction compared to all season tires, so give yourself a present of new tires and drive safer.

Exhaust systems should be inspected for leaks. CO, carbon monoxide, is a colourless, odorless gas that is a byproduct of combustion and it can kill silently. The gas impairs judgment by blocking the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, so you may not even realize there is a problem until it is too late. You can visually check your system by looking beneath the vehicle for clouds of exhaust water vapour that is coming from exhaust components, or take it in to a muffler shop and they can do a quick inspection for you.

Cooling and heating problems occur more frequently in winter. An engine can overheat if the antifreeze solution is too weak and gels as it gets cold. The gelled coolant in the engine block will turn back to liquid, but not the coolant in the radiator, so without circulation, the engine overheats. More commonly, the engines don’t operate hot enough. This is usually caused by a faulty thermostat. Poor interior heat is one indication a new thermostat is needed and this can also cause the engine to burn much more fuel.

The coolant temperature sensor is one of the key inputs that the engine computer uses to calculate fuel injection rates. More fuel is injected into cold engines, so replacing a faulty thermostat will quickly pay for itself at the gas pumps.

Batteries loose as much as 75 per cent of their cranking power on the coldest days of winter. For this reason, a battery must operate at full potential so that it can start the engine. Any repair shop can quickly test the battery capacity by performing a load test. Have the charging system output tested too while you are getting the battery checked. Winter driving places high loads on the electrical system, with lights, heater fan, rear window defroster, heated seats and other electrical components almost always on. A weak charging system won’t keep a battery fully charged, and you could find yourself walking because the vehicle won’t start.

Visibility is critical to safe driving, so walk around the vehicle and check all the lights so other drivers can see you too. Defrost the windows completely before driving and it may be a good time to change those wiper blades. If they are over two years old, they have likely hardened and don’t clear the windshield without smears.

Pack a survival kit. Changing a flat tire if temperatures are at minus 30 degrees Celsius will be extremely difficult unless you are dressed for it, so carry gloves, warm clothing including a hat or toque, matches and candles (incase the engine dies) and a snow shovel. I recommend carrying a warm sleeping bag, as it is safer to stay bundled up in a vehicle than try to walk for help if you are in rural countryside. Crisp winter air makes those yard lights appear much closer than they really are.

Finally, adjust your driving style. Icy patches and cold pavement have far less traction than summer roads. Increase following distances, be prepared for other vehicles sliding through stop signs at intersections and avoid sudden starts and stops. Have a safe and enjoyable holiday!

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