Driving in frosty winter weather is a fact of life in many parts of the United States. It frequently comes just as millions of drivers are embarking on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's road trips, and often carries over well into the new year, too. At best, window frost and icy roads are a nuisance; at worst, they can be deadly. We look at what drivers can do to prepare their vehicles for winter's challenges, and how they can adjust the way they drive to help avoid a crash.
Make sure your car is ready for winter
Change your car's engine oil and oil filter as recommended by the manufacturer. If you're changing the oil yourself, make sure to refill with an oil rated for cold weather.
Inspect all lights and replace burned-out bulbs. Have badly weathered or hazy plastic headlight lenses restored for better visibility and increased safety.
Engine & exhaust
Have any Check Engine lights or other engine problems corrected as soon as possible. Have your vehicle’s exhaust system examined for leaks, including floorboards and trunk.
Get your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles. Check the tires' pressures once a month. If you live in a cold climate, consider a set of dedicated snow tires.
Batteries typically last three to five years, and failures are common in winter because of increased cold-starting electrical loads. If your battery is old, have it tested.
Flush and refill the cooling system with factory-approved coolant at the interval specified by the manufacturer. A 50/50 mix of coolant and water is usually recommended.
Heater & defroster
Check for proper system operation to ensure visibility and passenger comfort. Replace the cabin air filter at intervals specified by your car’s manufacturer.
Replace worn wipers and fill the windshield washer system with winter solvent. If you live in a harsh climate, buy beam-type or rubber-clad blades that help prevent ice buildup.
Not sure how to do your own maintenance? Want your vehicle inspected by an expert? Need a repair? The AAA Approved Auto Repair program has been referring our members to trusted, high-quality facilities since it was established in 1975. Learn more, and find a AAA Approved Auto Repair facility.
Tips for safer winter driving
Leave at the right time. Monitor weather and traffic reports ahead of time to avoid running into built-up holiday traffic or a severe storm.
Drive slowly. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads, so allow yourself enough time to maneuver by driving slowly. Also, maintain your speed when ascending a hill rather than accelerating; speed combined with snow or ice can be very hazardous.
Maintain speed to get over hills. Build up a little extra inertia before going uphill. Once you’re on the hill, avoid strong acceleration or braking. As you crest the hill, reduce speed and steadily descend the other side.
Don’t use cruise control. Without cruise control, you can instantly decrease speed by lifting your foot off the accelerator. This quickly transfers weight to the front tires, giving them more traction.
Increase following distance. The normal dry pavement following distance is three to four seconds behind the car in front of you, but should be increased to eight to 10 seconds during winter driving.
Don’t panic if you enter a skid. Continue to look and steer in the direction you want the vehicle to go. Avoid slamming on the brakes, as it will further upset the vehicle's balance and make it harder to regain control.
Know when to brake and when to steer. When traveling over 25 mph in wintery conditions, AAA recommends steering rather than braking to avoid collisions. Braking on slippery surfaces takes more time, so you should be scanning 20 to 30 seconds ahead of your vehicle. Don’t brake and steer at the same time—that makes it more likely your vehicle will lose traction.
If you become snow-bound, stay with your vehicle. It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Leaving your car in a severe storm makes you more likely to get lost than find help. Make sure you pack extra jackets, gloves, and hats.
Consider renting a car instead of driving your own
While driving your own car on a long road trip has its benefits, renting a vehicle comes with advantages, too:
Prevent wear and tear. Long-distance driving can be hard on a vehicle, especially in freezing winter weather.
Get the size you need. If you’d like to travel with extended family, but your everyday car doesn’t have the room, rent a larger crossover, SUV, or minivan.
Prepare for the weather. Hertz, AAA’s longtime car rental partner, offers SUVs and other four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with winter tires.
AAA members save up to 20% on when they rent with Hertzin the U.S. and Canada.