By Gordon Williams

With snow, ice and bone-chilling cold so often in the forecast, driving in winter can challenge the most experienced of drivers. But given the predictions from some widely-followed prognosticators, hitting the highways this winter could be especially perilous. 

“This coming winter could well be one of the longest and coldest that we’ve seen in years,” says Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

That doesn’t mean you need to keep your car in the garage until spring comes. But you want to follow the rules for safe winter travel when you do drive. There is plenty of winter driving advice available from the American Red Cross, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

The word from the Red Cross is that staying safe this winter should start before you leave home. That’s why the Red Cross app begins with a section titled “Prepare for Driving.” To tap into recommendations from the Red Cross, search for American Red Cross highway safety.

“Pay attention to the weather forecast at your destination,” says the Red Cross. “Travel and weather websites can help you avoid storms and other regional challenges that could impact your safety.” The Red Cross further advises you to “Let someone know your destination and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.”

Make sure your car is equipped for the journey before you start — a good rule to follow even if you are just driving to the regional shopping mall. An accident on snowy roads can snarl traffic for hours. Here are some of the items the Red Cross suggests you carry in your vehicle:

  • Flashlight
  • Small battery-powered radio
  • High-protein snacks
  • Water
  • Any medications you must take on a regular basis

Finally, the Red Cross suggests always keeping a disaster supplies kit in your car just in case bad weather or an accident strands your car. The kit would include such items as a first aid kit, cell phone charger, a multi-purpose tool, extra batteries for your flashlight and radio, a blanket for each passenger, sanitation and personal hygiene items and some extra cash.

Add, if necessary, baby or pet supplies (including collar, leash and food and water bowls for the dog), extra batteries for a hearing aid, games and books for kids. The NHTSA adds jumper cables and flares or emergency lights for use in an emergency. If you must stop on the road, a reflective warning triangle can alert other drivers to your presence,

WSDOT has its own “planning ahead” suggestions, starting with making the most of 511 phone service. Dialing 511 on your phone inside Washington state will bring you up-to-date word on conditions on the roads and mountain passes. If you can’t connect to 511, dial 1-800-695-7623. There is also WSDOT’s Highway Advisory radio broadcast at 530 AM and 1610 AM.

WSDOT advises getting a full winter check-up on your car before you set out. That would include tires, battery, belts, hoses, radiator, lights, heater, wipers and defroster. WSDOT also says to “fill up your gas tank before heading out, so you’ll have plenty of gas if delayed in a road closure.” Make sure the windshield washer reservoir is filled with liquid that won’t freeze, so dirt and sludge can be washed away.

Always have chains in your car and practice installing them. Do a web search for the WSDOT Winter Driving Guide for lots of winter safety advice, including all whys and wherefores about how to use chains and when to use them. A “chains required on all vehicles” warning means just that: Every vehicle on the road must have chains.

Snow tires should be in place before winter arrives. And be aware that studded tires don’t count as chains. Even if you have tires with studs, you will need to use chains when they are required.

The NHTSA has lots to say about staying safe when you are out on the road. Prepare your car for travel by clearing snow, ice and dirt from the windows, forward sensors, headlights, taillights, and back-up cameras. 

”Drive slowly,” says the NHTSA, “it’s harder to control or stop your vehicle on a slick or snow-covered road. Increase your following distance enough so that you’ll have plenty of time to stop for vehicles ahead of you.”

Before setting out for a trip, make sure you know how your vehicle handles on wet, snowy or icy roads. Obviously, allow yourself more time for the journey since highway conditions or bad weather will force you to slow down.

Lastly, prepare for trouble any time you drive in winter. “Even if you and your vehicle are prepared, crashes happen,” says the NHTSA. “Vehicles break down. Any of us can get caught out in the elements, and help might not be just around the corner.” Should that happen to you, you will welcome having all those emergency supplies at hand. 

“Even if you don’t need them,” says the NHTSA, “emergency supplies can be used to help someone else in need on the road.”

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