Your Winter Road Trip Safety Guide

Road trips are unavoidable during the holiday season for many families. Stay as safe as possible with these expert tips.
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Taking a road trip is vastly different from the day-to-day school and grocery store run—especially in the colder months when road conditions can be less than ideal. From stocking your car with winter essentials to the one thing you should never do when driving uphill, keep these expert tips in mind before you get behind the wheel this winter.

1. Make sure your car is winter-ready. Your father was right all those years, you should be checking your tire pressure before hitting the road. "Your car should be in good operating order and ready for the season," says Maureen Vogel, spokeswoman for the National Safety Council. "Pay attention to the tires; they should have good tread and be inflated to the proper pressure for the temperatures and conditions outside." Insufficient tread descreases a car's overall traction and can result in hydroplaning (when a vehicle slides uncontrollably across a wet surface). Vogel also recommends filling anti-freeze and windshield washer solution, as well as using a washer solution that's rated for winter use so it doesn't freeze. Beyond windshield washer fluid, make sure the actual windshield wipers are in good working order, too. Make sure the blades are not streaking, skipping across the windshield, split, or rotted.

2. Never warm up' your car in the garage.

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During the colder months, the last thing anyone wants to do is climb into a freezing car, so you might be tempted to blast the heat before everyone piles in. But, it's crucial—as in life and death crucial—to avoid warming up your car up in an enclosed area, such as your garage. Starting your car in the garage—even with the door open—can expose you to carbon monoxide, which can be deadly. (Even if you have an attached garage, it's important to avoid doing this, as the fumes can leak into your home.) And from an engine-performance standpoint, warming up a car is no longer necessary, and in fact, can even be harmful to the engine.

3. Stock your car before leaving the house. Before venturing out onto the winter roads, make sure your car's trunk is stocked with just-in-case provisions. "Always have an emergency kit in the car with basics, including a flashlight with extra batteries, bottled water, high energy, non-perishable food, a phone charger, and first aid kit no matter the season," notes Vogel. "In the winter months, make sure to include a warm blanket, hat, gloves, ice scraper/brush, shovel, and a bag of kitty litter or sand." And as a standard practice, make sure your phone's battery is fully charged before you hit the road!

4. Don't floor it up hills. Trying to make it up a hill in icy, snowy conditions is no easy feat, and, understandably, you may be tempted to try to power your car all the way up. Bad idea. Trying to "floor it" uphill will only make your wheels spin. Instead, try getting some momentum going while you're still on flat land and let it carry you up. As you get toward the top, begin reducing your speed and head downhill as slowly as possible.

5. Practice before you go. When you've been driving for let's-not-say-how-many years, it may sound silly to "practice" before a road trip. But it's important to keep in mind that driving long distances in treacherous conditions is much different from your everyday school run. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends sharpening your winter driving skills by practicing in an empty parking lot when your area gets snow. Also, if you're renting a car, it's a good idea to take it for a test spin before heading off on your journey in order to familiarize yourself with its handle and features.

6. Know what to do if you get stuck. First off, don't panic! If your car gets stuck in the snow, your initial instinct might be to "gun it," but that will only dig the car in deeper and make it harder to get out. "Try gently accelerating forward and then shifting to reverse using the same gentle acceleration to 'rock' the car out of the snow," says Vogel. "If your car has traction control features, turning them off may help. You can also use the shovel in your emergency kit to push snow away from the tires, being sure to clear the tail pipe as well to prevent carbon monoxide build-up." Non-clay-based kitty litter or sand may come in handy here also, as you can sprinkle some near the tires in order to add some friction that will help you gain the traction needed to free the car from the snow bank.

7. Be sure to have enough gas and battery power. The NHTSA recommends always having at least half a tank of gas during colder months, not only to avoid running out, but to prevent gas line freeze up. It's also important to check that your battery is sufficiently charged. For electric and hybrid-electric cars, the driving range is reduced when the battery is cold, and for gas engines, it takes more battery power to start the car when it's cold outside. Have your mechanic check your battery for sufficient voltage, amperage, and reserve capacity.

8. Don’t bundle up before you buckle up. When the weather is cold, it makes sense that you want your kids to be bundled up—and if you’re heading out in winter weather, you absolutely need warm clothing for your crew—but you don’t want your little wearing bulky winter coats under their car seats harness. The reason? According to Consumer Reports, a bulky coat under your kiddo’s seat harness can result in the harness being too loose to be effective in a crash. A safer stay-warm trick: Buckle your child in first, then put a blanket over her, or put her coat on backwards with the arms through the arm holes after she’s buckled in.

9. Consider getting roadside assistance. If you're not normally one to have OnStar, AAA, or roadside assistance through your insurance, credit card company, or automaker, you may want to consider it during the colder months when driving conditions are at their worst, and accidents are more likely. Even if you wind up not using it, you can get behind the wheel with the peace of mind knowing that your family is safe and secure, should you have an accident or find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere. 

10. If possible, wait it out. If the weather looks dangerous and you've got a little wiggle room in terms of your departure date, it's best to wait it out. Always check the weather report and driving conditions before leaving the house, and if the forecast is iffy, stay home. If delaying your trip is unavoidable, tell friends and family members the exact route you'll be taking and when. But seriously weigh your options before leaving the house. No trip is worth getting stranded, or worse, into an accident.

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