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Originally published Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 12:03 AM

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It pays to prepare yourself for winter driving

Here’s a refresher course on how to deal with snow, ice and cold weather on Washington’s highways.

The Columbian

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Frosty grass, ice-tipped evergreen trees and open roads blanketed in fresh powder — beautiful to see. But to drive in?

Difficult and potentially dangerous would be a more apt description.

Because winters in this part of the Pacific Northwest are mild in comparison with other parts of the country, Washington State Patrol spokesman Will Finn says drivers often aren’t used to the road conditions and don’t get practice driving in the snow.

“A lot of times we see drivers getting overconfident with their driving,” he said.

People with four-wheel drive may think their cars can handle faster speeds on icy or snowy roads; however, these vehicles can’t stop any faster.

AAA projects 93.3 million Americans traveling during the Christmas and New Years holidays, a 1.6 percent increase from last year. About 90 percent of travelers plan to go by car.

Jennifer Cook, spokeswoman for AAA Washington, says the first step to surviving the winter driving season is to take care of your car. Make sure the battery is healthy, fluid levels aren’t low, the lights and windshield wipers are working, and the tires are fully inflated and have enough tread.

“As the temperatures go down, you’re going to lose tire pressure,” she said.

Cindy Stanley, emergency management coordinator at the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, says drivers should plan ahead and keep an emergency car kit.

Keep in mind what would happen and what you would need if you were stranded somewhere, she recommends. Even if you don’t end up using the supplies in your kit, you can hand a few flares to someone else who’s stuck on the side of the road.

Give yourself plenty of time, and let others in on your travel plans.

“Make sure someone knows where you are if you’re heading out for a winter trip, even if it’s your regular route,” Stanley said. “You just never know in weather like that.”

Commuters traveling on their regular route to work know where the turns and hills are and where the road might get icy, said Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo. By anticipating those icy areas and slowing down before you get to them, you can prevent your car from skidding.

Most people try to do too much at once and are too harsh on the controls, he says. Just do one thing at a time.

“When you have a limited amount of traction, you want to be 100 percent effective,” Cox said.

In winter weather, you need to slow down, coast through curves and then, once your wheels are straight, accelerate. Braking or accelerating while taking a turn makes your car more likely to slip. When approaching a hill, slow down before you get to the hill, downshift and apply the brakes as smoothly as possible. You’ll want to ease up on the brakes if you feel the wheels lock up.

If you feel your car skidding, press down on the brakes firmly until you feel the clicking sound of the anti-lock brakes. Don’t have anti-lock brakes? Pump the brakes to build up pressure. Then, steer in the direction you want to go.

“It’s important to get it in your head that it takes four to 10 times longer to stop,” Cox said.

Drivers should increase their following distance and pay attention to how cars are reacting to the road. If they’re slipping, your car could slip, too.

When there’s powder on the road, Cox suggests driving on the snow, rather than in the icy polished groove worn in by other cars. You’ll have better traction.

Drivers should never use cruise control in winter weather.

Finally, pay attention to that thermometer in your car this season. Unless your errand is urgent, you might just stay home in subfreezing weather and enjoy a cup of cocoa.

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