As temperatures go down, the need for proper car care goes up

If you live in the cold-weather parts of the country, is your car all set for winter? Everything takes longer when the temperature plummets. Even the simple procedure of starting your car can take more time, so allow extra minutes to prep it in the morning.

Use the time to clean the windows of ice and snow as well as to open the side vents to reduce fogging. Opening a window equalizes the inside and outside temperatures to some degree and thereby lessens the chance of moisture condensing on the inside.

Avoid using the parking brake if you can. Slush can accumulate in the wheels and an overnight drop in temperature will freeze your car in place, so use the mechanical parking brake only if the incline requires it.

You can make sure your car is securely parked without the use of the handbrake by turning the front wheels into the downward part of a sloping street.

Meanwhile, fall is a good time for a tuneup in order to prepare for the toughest part of the driving year.

Check the ignition system from battery to spark plugs to ensure reliable operation when the weather gets rough. Change the oil, using an all-purpose grade or weight that's suitable for the temperature extremes that your car will experience.

Have the fuel system cleaned out and all hoses checked. A small crack in a hose can go for months without leaking in mild weather, but severe and sudden temperature changes can rip the crack wide open.

Most cars come with a permanent coolant or antifreeze that works well in a moderate winter climate. It's wise, however, to check the owner's manual to find out whether you need more protection.

Have the fluid in the radiator tested to see the level to which the antifreeze will remain solvent and thereby provide the heat-dissipation properties to the engine for which it was designed.

Clean the windshield. Keep the windshield-washer bottle filled with a solvent or cleanser that will not freeze.

An old wives' tale says that the tires will have better traction in snow and on wet surfaces by lowering their pressure. Don't believe it. Instead of giving better winter traction, it is more likely to increase tire wear and reduce fuel economy.

All four tires should be of equal pressure. In winter it is best to check the tires often. Generally, tires lose a pound of air for every 10-degree drop in temperature.

If snow and ice are part of your daily routine, get snow tires and have chains ready for those big problem days. Studded tires are also useful, but they don't offer the same flexibility. Some states restrict their use, so be sure you know the law. Generally, snow tires are enough for most winter situations.

Prepare for the unexpected. Now is the time to buy and install foglights if your car doesn't already have them. Foglights could be your most prized investment for those murky days of limited visibility.

Old window screens, cardboard carters, scraps of carpeting, and even newspapers should be left in the car to help you get traction on slippery surfaces. Stuff them in front of the driving wheels to get a little forward momentum.

Rain, mud, wet leaves, loose gravel, and ice can cause a complete loss of traction. Ice and snow make skidding a special winter hazard.

This winter maintain your grip on the road. Keep the car speed well below your normal, dry-road speed, and maintain a steady pace.

Avoid sudden changes of direction, speed, or gear ratios, and be more aware of irregularities in the road's surface.

Look out for sharp curves, a crown in the road, and changes in road-surface material.

A car will go into a skid, on a slippery surface, for example, by driving at the same top speed that you would normally use when negotiating a curve. This is because the coefficient of friction between the rubber and the road is far less than it is when the surface is dry.

Swerving suddenly from a straight course has the same effect. Apply the brakes evenly and not too hard. Accelerate slowly. Sudden speed changes on a slippery surface have the same effect as quick changes in direction.

Remember, the stopping distance under normal road conditions no longer applies when the road is icy or wet. Double or triple that distance for added safety.

The winter driver must keep ''cool,'' so go easy on the gas. When one wheel is spinning on ice or snow, the spinning wheel could actually be going double the speed that is indicated on the speedometer and, possibly, fast enough to cause the tire to fly apart.

Rock the car gently by changing between drive and reverse. Excessive stress overheats the transmission. Check the transmission fluid after strenuous use. If the fluid smells burned and has turned brown, protect the car's vital parts by replacing the fluid as well as the filter.

Pumping the brakes is best for slowing down and enhances your steering control.

In winter, the danger of skidding is at its worst when temperatures are at or slightly above freezing. Roads are especially slick when the ice is wet or melting, even if the melting is caused merely by the pressure of tires passing over it.

A bridge is a hidden danger when it's cold and wet. With the temperature near freezing, moisture on a bridge can quickly change to ice because of the wind sweeping under or around it.

Tips on getting out of a skid:

* Keep yourself under control at all times.

* Avoid hard braking.

* Steer in the direction in which the rear end of the car is skidding.

* Avoid oversteering.

* Keep the clutch engaged or the selector level in ''drive.''

* Avoid the sudden lifting of your foot from the accelerator. Knowing how to handle a skid is important, but not as valuable as knowing how to prevent one.

Winter wisdom: Easy on the gas in ice and snow and thereby avoid a tow.

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