The cold truth: How to endure winter weather behind the wheel

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When winter blows into the Lehigh Valley, average lows could hit the 20s for four consecutive months starting in December. And three decades back in 1983, a single-day snowfall of 2 feet shattered all local records.

Yet even if winter fails to hit those extremes, you will likely be faced with snow, ice, cold and hazardous driving conditions. Experts agree that preparation and pacing aren't merely considerations: They're musts.

"The No. 1 thing to keep in mind is your speed," says Trooper Adam Reed, public information officer for the Pennsylvania State Police. "We see a lot of winter weather-related accidents that could be avoided if people just slowed down. It's all determined by traffic and road conditions. If it's snowing or icy, then the speed should be decreased, especially on hills and winding roads."

Eastern Pennsylvania drivers have it especially tough because of the winding roads, many of which wend their way through the Appalachians. "With the first snow of year, it takes some people a little bit of time to adjust to conditions," Reed notes. "And your nerves could worsen if you're driving on a road you're unfamiliar with, or at night." Or both.

Reed says motorists should increase their safe flowing distance. In ideal conditions, it's one car length for every 10 mph. "But in winter weather, you'll want three to four times that much."

If plows are in the road, the rule of thumb changes. "In general, you want to leave at least six car lengths between your car and snowplows," says Erin Waters-Trasatt, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "The (posted) speed limits are for optimal conditions."

And if you're in a construction zone, take extra care, as slippery, shifting roads that lack shoulders spell trouble if you're flying through. "Unfortunately most of the people killed are the drivers themselves," Waters-Trasatt says.

Winterizing hits the list of top to-do items and if you haven't gotten around to it, get it done now, says Theresa Podguski, director of legislative affairs for the AAA East Central office in Allentown.

"In particular, check your batteries and charging systems, and make sure that belts and hoses are also checked," Podguski says. "We recommend that a certified mechanic take a look at those." AAA also has a battery service that members can purchase at a discounted price.

Additionally, don't fail to examine your tire treads and inflation. Freezing cold means the air inside tires will contract, leaving them underinflated unless you've filled them up recently. Keep in mind that tire pressure also falls: one pound per square inch for every 10 degrees of temperature drop. "And if you haven't checked the spare tire in a while, make sure you do that as well," Podguski says.

Experts agree that a AAA membership or roadside assistance program is essential, since a tow truck will be your best friend in the event of a mishap. But there are simple precautions you can take to avoid that situation.

"Another big problem we see during the winter is people not clearing their windows," Reed says. "So take a few seconds before you pull out to clear off all the windows, all the way. We see people literally clearing up the front widow just enough to see out front and then forget the rest. But it's crucial to clear everything: the side windows, the back windows and especially the mirrors."

And while texting and driving falls under the obvious no-no category, there's one app you should use while driving: 511Pa. It's available for both iOS and Android, and allows for hands-free, eyes-free operation as it alerts you to construction, weather hazards and vital information covering the Keystone State's 40,000 miles of state roads and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You can also personalize the intervals at which you receive alerts, Waters-Trasatt adds.

But sometimes, she says, the safest driving is no driving at all. "In the winter weather, depending the degree of precipitation or snow, you should consider postponing travel plans. That's the safest thing to do, as we're out there clearing the roads. That helps us do our job faster and when you go out, you'll be safer."

And should you absolutely need to hit the road - or get caught on it as the snow starts to fall - always, always take your time. As Waters-Trasatt puts it, "Let's all get home safely and err on the side of caution as the cold weather comes."

By Lou Carlozo, Brand Publishing Writer

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