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Winter Driving Safety Tips

Driving in the winter can be stressful and dangerous. Patch's conversation with Windsor Police Chief Kevin Searles offers a bevy of tips for staying safe on the road this season.

Spinning your wheels? Get used to it. Snow showers are expected in the coming days and driving may become hazardous.

Slick roads, covered in ice, snow and slush make even the best of drivers look amateurish as they try to control a ton or more of metal gliding across the interstate. Winter challenges even the most experienced drivers; the hazards are the seen and unseen, potential pitfalls range from snow to black ice.

Drivers rarely get a chance to practice without consequences behind the wheel, and so they end up surprised when they hit the roads and then hit someone else. According to Windsor Police Chief Kevin Searles, "it really is about common sense. If the weather is bad, drop your speed and increase your distance and take your time."

Windsor sees it share of accidents annually, but winter brings "a plague of accidents" said Searles. "For the most part, it isn't the fault of the drivers. It is more because of the slick roads and people just can't do anything about it."

Preparation is the key to safe driving. Cleaning off the car properly so your windshield is clean and clear, making sure the wiper fluid is full, checking the battery, engine anti-freeze, fluids and overall general maintenance are imperative to remaining safe on the roads. Area garages can help drivers prepare for winter with a variety of winterizing packages.

Ideally, when inclement weather does impair driving conditions, drivers should try to find an empty parking lot and practice to get comfortable with how a car dives in bad weather.

Chief Searles notes that many drivers forget about black ice and then never see it. "You have to look for the signs," he said. "Snow banks that melt during the day can cause black ice around the edges… dripping water from bridges can freeze. Anticipating where the hazards might be will help you handle the situation."

Black ice can occur anywhere and, when the roads are cold, any water on them will freeze immediately. Bridges are also a source of black ice as the road freezes more quickly.

"Things are going to happen that are beyond your control," the chief added. "Be serious about this and take precaution. Don't take for granted that you will be fine when you race through that yellow light."

"Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop," said Searles, who recommends leaving at least twice as much distance from the car in front of you as usual.

According to Searles, when following a vehicle, you need to allow at least 6 vehicle lengths for every ten miles an hour you drive. He noted that most people drive much closer than that distance, even in good weather.  

When the roads are icy or even wet this time of year, drivers should apply brakes gently and slowly to avoid a skid. Most cars today are equipped with daytime running lights for safety. If a car doesn't have them turn the lights should be turned on to make a vehicle more noticeable to oncoming traffic. Drivers should also downshift into third, second, or first gear, especially on inclines to get better traction, and shouldn't use cruise control or overdrive.

It might be annoying to follow that snowplow or sander, but passing the truck is more dangerous. Those equipped with all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive ability shouldn't be overly confident inclement weather. Ice shows no mercy and does not discriminate.

When in an emergency, drivers should never panic, and remember these suggestions to avoid accidents:

If your rear wheels begin to skid, first take your foot off the accelerator. As the car begins to slide, turn the steering wheel in the same direction your rear wheels are going.  If your rear wheels are sliding left, turn the wheel left. If they're sliding right, turn the wheel right.  Sometimes, you may end up turning the wheel back and forth as you slide back and forth. This is called fishtailing but it can help you regain control of your car.

Pump your brakes unless they are anti-lock brakes they will do that automatically. If you have anti-lock brakes press the pedal down slowly and steadily.

If your front wheels begin to skid while driving, take your foot off the gas pedal and shift into neutral, but don't try to steer immediately. As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go, then put the transmission in "drive" or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.

If you do get stuck, first, do not spin your wheels as it only digs you in deeper. Try turning the wheel from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way. Touch the accelerator lightly and slowly give it more gas to ease your way out of the hole. Shoveling the snow out of the way or placing cardboard under the wheels are good options if you are stuck. Using sand, cat litter, gravel or salt can help melt the snow and give you better traction. Rocking the car from back to front by shifting from neutral to drive is another way to get out of a snow bank. Check your owners' manual regarding this option.

Lastly, the best tip for driving in winter weather – Stay Home!

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