By Richard C. Snell

Barton County Extension Agriculture Agent

Western Kansas

It is winter, and I have to tell you, I don't like it.

Mostly, because I don't like driving on ice and snow. Not only that, but I just don't handle the cold real well, even though I have lived in Kansas all of my life.

Over the years, I have had some close calls and have been fortunate enough to live to tell about them. A number of them have been in bad weather situations. A lot of you will be traveling over the holidays, and I thought some driving tips might be in order, even though in our area we haven't had much winter weather yet. My family might tell you I don't always follow these, so this may be one of those "do as I say, not as I do columns."

The first few days after a storm may seem the most hazardous, but winter weather can be unpredictable. Problems can occur at almost any time. Staying home or postponing plans can be a good idea, but it isn't always possible. With experience, drivers can reduce risks. Simple motor vehicle maintenance and some practice also can help reduce risks.

Winter drivers are encouraged to reduce speed, allow a greater distance between vehicles and more time and distance to stop. Doing so may allow crucial room to maneuver and avoid an accident. Drivers also are cautioned that driving on a recently plowed road does not necessarily mean "resume normal speed." Plowed or partially cleared roads still may not be free of snow or icy patches; bridges may be icy, too.

Practice is important, because it can help a driver learn more about how their vehicle will handle during adverse driving conditions. I recommend choosing an open area, like a parking lot that is not in use, for a practice session.

Try steering into a skid. Test brake response. With anti-lock brakes, press the brake pedal and steer. Without an anti-lock braking system, pump the brakes to keep wheels from locking up. The age and condition of a car or truck can affect motorists' risks. Basic maintenance, such as changing the oil every three months or 3,000 miles, can prolong the life of a vehicle, make it easier to start on cold winter days and reduce the risk of a breakdown that can be particularly hazardous during winter months.

Preventive maintenance can reduce on-the-road risks. Although, I am no mechanic, here are some maintenance tips to help avoid being stranded:

--Check the age and condition of the battery, and consider replacing a battery early. For example, replacing a four-year battery during the third year may be less costly than a roadside service call when the battery fails.

--Check the level of the antifreeze and temperature range to protect the automotive cooling system.

--Replace windshield wiper blades. Wiper blades are designed to remove water; using them for other purposes, like removing snow or ice from the windshield, can damage them.

--Keep the reservoir of windshield wiper fluid filled.

--Check the age and condition of tires. A good, all-season tire can provide reliable transportation under most travel conditions.

Drivers who must be on the road during less favorable conditions may want to consider snow tires. A phone call to the Highway Patrol usually can clarify state regulations on snow tires and chains.

Telephone numbers for the Highway Patrol and road conditions usually are listed with other emergency numbers, in the front of the phone book. In Kansas, the road condition hotline is 1-800-585-7623 (road); cellular phone users can call Star 47, a toll-free number that will automatically connect them to the nearest Highway Patrol dispatcher.

The age of a car or truck also may make additional maintenance appropriate. For example, replacing radiator and heater hoses every three to four years can reduce the possibility of a breakdown. Checking the condition of the water pump, starter and heating and exhaust systems also is recommended.

People are driving their vehicles longer. Doing so can produce a substantial cost-savings, but designating part of the savings for preventive maintenance can increase safety and reliability.

Easy-to-do maintenance, like cleaning the windows inside and out, can improve safety through improved visibility. Cloudy windows can come as a result of vapors from spray materials used to clean the interior and reduce visibility. Another simple practice is to assemble a vehicle safety kit.

The contents recommended for a safety kit includes a snow brush and ice scraper, small steel shovel, flashlight, with fresh batteries; jumper cables; and abrasive materials, such as sand, cat litter or traction mats, like a set of older floor mats or carpet scrap. A flare or bright piece of cloth that can be tied to an antenna, in case of emergency, and an empty coffee can, candle and matches also are good to include.

Blankets or sleeping bags and non-perishable foods, such as cereal bars or crackers, can be helpful. So can a cellular phone, which I have used to help others out of trouble more than myself.

If stranded, staying with the vehicle usually is the best. I also advise marking the vehicle with a bright tie or flare, and resisting the temptation to over-do it. Like trying to shovel a car out of a big drift. Clear the area around the exhaust pipe of snow or other debris. Crack the window a bit to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and run the engine just long enough to remove the chill.

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