Your Winter Weather Driving Checklist

Let's not panic here. Most of us, even in the frigid North, survive winter weather just fine. We don't careen into other vehicles or get stranded for days in an out-of-the-way snow bank. But, like my grandmother said when prescribing clean underwear (just for the record, I try to don clean underwear each and every day), the worst could happen. You could run into the land-based equivalent of The Perfect Storm. You could get trapped with your car as your only form of shelter. So why not give it a little thought? It won't hurt your brain too much.

Last week we discussed proper winter driving techniques with an expert. Kevin Schrantz is a professional driver who teaches courses at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This week we decided to funnel to you his expertise on preparing your vehicle for a trip in which you could encounter severe weather.

Schrantz's first bit of advice is check the weather forecasts before you depart. Each year drivers venture into high mountain passes and find themselves stranded by heavy snow, when a quick look at a weather forecast might have persuaded them to postpone their trip. If you're facing a prediction of severe weather, ask yourself the old World War II question: "Is this trip really necessary?"

If you decide to venture out, give yourself the advantage of traveling during daylight hours when visibility is usually much better than at night. Not only can you see better; you can also be seen better, which is a huge advantage if you get stuck and need assistance.

Make certain both you and your vehicle are prepared for the trip. It is important that your vehicle be mechanically sound and well equipped for winter weather. This means a proper level of anti-freeze coolant, sound belts and hoses, and properly inflated tires. Schrantz recommends that tires be inflated to the manufacturer's specifications, and he notes that specially designed snow and ice tires will offer much better performance than all-season tires in severe conditions. When preparing your car, don't forget little things like your windshield wiper blades and windshield solvent, because they can be crucial to your visibility. Schrantz also told us that adding weight to the trunk to increase traction has become passé, and in a front-drive car it might even impede your handling.

Finally, be prepared for the worst-case scenario -- getting stranded with my former mother-in-law. Okay, nothing can prepare you for that, but you can be prepared to spend hours or even days in your vehicle until rescue -- or Spring -- arrives.

First, don't drive on empty. If you're about to pass through a desolate area, make certain you have plenty of gasoline, because gas won't just get you home; it can keep you warm if you run the engine and heater judiciously. Just be aware carbon monoxide can build quickly in a non-moving car.

Second, carry what Schrantz calls the most important safety device you can bring with you -- a cellular telephone. A cell phone can quickly summon help, though service in out-of-the-way areas is still spotty.

Finally, pack a bag with winter weather necessities. This bag should include warm clothes, blanket, gloves and/or mittens, candle and waterproof matches or windproof lighter, flashlight, and some packaged food. In your cargo area, you should carry a shovel, windshield scraper, towrope or chain, jumper cables, flares and, perhaps a bag of sand or kitty litter to spread for traction. Sections of a cardboard box or even a blanket can also serve this function. Remember, too, that a mirror, like your car's interior rearview mirror, can be a good signaling device during sunny weather.

If you are stranded, stay with your vehicle. It will provide you shelter and is much easier to see than a lone individual hiking in a desolate area.

Jack R. Nerad, managing editor of Driving Today, always carries a bowl of hot chicken soup with him, just in case.