5 steps to keep you safe on the road

Getting your car—and yourself—prepared for the worst

Published: March 07, 2015 09:00 AM

Many on-the-road inconveniences and even tragedies can be avoided with some preparation. From facing bad weather to avoiding breakdowns, proper planning can make a difference.

Follow these five steps to put the odds in your favor.



Make sure your tires are in good shape and inflated to the pressure recommended by the car’s manufacturer. Driving on under-inflated tires degrades a car’s handling, shortens the tires’ life, and can lead to tire failure.

If you live in an area where roads are snow-covered for extensive periods, invest in a set of winter tires. For convenience, keep the winter tires mounted on their own set of wheels; plain steel wheels are fine. If your car came with pressure-monitoring sensors, you’ll want to have a set of sensors for your winter tires and wheels. (See our tire buying advice and Ratings.)

Windshield wipers

Wipers don’t last as long as most people think. You can often extend their life if you use a glass cleaner to freshen them, but six months of service is about the most you can expect. As soon as you notice nonstop streaking or glass areas a wiper is missing, get new wiper blades. Replace both at the same time.

Washer fluid

Keep the washer fluid reservoir topped up with a non-freezing washer fluid. It’s inexpensive and a far better choice than plain water.

Headlight lenses

Hazy, worn headlight lenses can drastically cut down your nighttime illumination. Do-it-yourself headlight-lens restoration products do work, though they take a lot of elbow grease. One we tried that stood out was the Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit ($21). You can also get your headlight lenses professionally treated at a body shop or auto detailer, but it will cost you.

Headlight bulbs

Conventional halogen headlight bulbs will burn out at some point, but you may not notice when you lose one. Periodically, check, after dark, to make sure that both your high beams and low beams are actually working.

Replacement headlight-bulb makers often claim superior performance, but in our tests we’ve found that the new bulbs may be brighter but they won’t help you see farther down the road than the standard-issue lamps. Distance is governed more by the reflector than the bulb.

We’d skip the blue-tinted headlight bulbs that seek to imitate the look of high-intensity xenon headlights. We’ve seen no advantage from using them.

Battery health

Temperature extremes are tough on car batteries. Before a brutal winter or a scorching summer, have a mechanic perform a “load test” on your battery. It’s a quick, simple, non-invasive procedure that will tell if your battery is still up to snuff. If not, get your battery replaced. (See our car battery buying advice and Ratings.)

Winter driving

Clear all ice and snow from your car before starting off. Keep an ice scraper in the car, and perhaps another one in your house or garage. Auto-parts stores offer a big variety. If you have an SUV, look for a scraper/brush with a telescoping handle so you can clear snow from the roof. In some states, it is illegal to travel with snow on the roof. At any case, it is discourteous.

Don’t try to clear ice from the windshield with the wipers alone. That can wreck the wiper blades and stress the wiper arm assembly.

If you’re driving on a snowy road, expect your stopping distances to be much longer, even if you have excellent tires and great brakes. Caution is the watchword: Drive much slower than you would on a dry, clear, road and look as far down the road as you can, to give yourself plenty of time—and space—to stop if you have to.

Four- and all-wheel drive are great for getting going, but they bring no benefit in helping you corner or brake.

Make all your actions slow, measured, and smooth—accelerating, braking, and cornering—and do one thing at a time. Ease off the accelerator, brake gently, then turn, get back on the accelerator as you exit the corner gently. When driving looks risky due to weather, stay home. (See our complete guide to winter driving.)

Nighttime driving

Driving after dark brings extra dangers. When you can’t see far ahead, you have less time to react to an obstacle in the road, whether that’s another car, a person, or an animal. But reduced visibility isn’t the only concern.

Even though there’s much less traffic at night, almost a third of traffic fatalities occur between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. The worst times to be on the road are weekend nights, when a lot of people are partying.

In 2012, more than half of the drivers who were fatally injured between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. were legally intoxicated at the time. This suggests that you have a good chance of sharing the road with drunk drivers at some point. Even if they are a small percentage of your fellow travelers, it’s another good reason to take sensible precautions, like leaving a wide berth between your car and the other guy.

Don’t be afraid of your high beams. High beams usually throw light much farther down the road than low beams do, giving you more time to react to hazards. But most people don’t use their high beams as much as they should. Thankfully, more and more new cars have automatic high beams that dip themselves to low-beam when they sense oncoming traffic or tail lights ahead. They work well, and spare you the inconvenience of turning the high beams on and off manually.  

Fight glare. A lot of people are sensitive to nighttime glare, from wet roadways and other cars’ headlights. Glare sensitivity gets worse with age. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a 55-year-old takes eight times longer to recover from glare than a 16-year-old. Ask your eye doctor for advice if you find nighttime driving getting harder for you.

Clean glass(es). To minimize glare, wash your windshield inside and out regularly. If you wear glasses, keep them clean as well. When you get new glasses, consider an anti-reflective coating.

Avert your gaze. To keep from being dazzled by oncoming headlights, switch your gaze to the lower right, toward the lane marker or road shoulder.

Adjust mirrors. AAA recommends the following trick for adjusting the outside mirrors to minimize both glare and blind zones: Move your head to the left-side window and adjust the left mirror so you can just see your car’s rear corner. Then move your head to the center of the vehicle and adjust the right-hand mirror so you can just see the right rear corner.

Inside mirror. Many inside mirrors automatically adjust for nighttime conditions. Others have little lever you flick for the night setting. Get used to using it if you don’t already. It really helps keep you from being dazzled by the cars behind you.

Headlight aim. If your headlights are misaimed or misaligned, that not only affects how well you can see, but they can also pose a real problem for other drivers.

As a quick after-dark check, position your car 25 feet from your garage door or another convenient target at the same level as your car, and turn on your low beams. The two beams should be at about the same level and no higher than they are immediately in front of the car. You can use a yardstick or tape measure to find the distance from the ground to the middle of your headlight reflectors.    

If the headlights don’t seem right, ask a local mechanic or franchised dealer if they have the right equipment for correctly adjusting your car’s headlights. 

Driving in rain

Driving through rain or fog can be pretty scary for almost anyone; both visibility and road holding are compromised. If you can’t see well, slow down until conditions improve.

Turn headlights on. Make it a rule: Whenever your wipers are on, so too should be your low-beam headlights. In any dim lighting condition, whether rain or dusk, headlights make you much more visible to other drivers.

In foggy conditions you’ll see better with your low beams than with the high beams, which can scatter more light back at you.

Avoid big puddles. Your can hydroplane—lose contact with the road—in standing water. When that happens you have no steering and no brakes. As tires wear, their hydroplaning resistance declines, as well. The best advice is to slow in downpours.

If you should find yourself hydroplaning, do nothing radical. Ease off the throttle but don’t hit the brakes or whip the steering wheel around. When your car regains contact with the road surface you want to be able to resume your course with a minimum of adjustment.

Essential travel gear

You can buy car-emergency kits online or assemble your own to provide extra protection in harsh weather and on long trips. In addition to these, consider keeping a few travel essentials with you.

Everyday essentials

  • Glass cleaner and microfiber towel
  • Tire-pressure gauge
  • Extra windshield-washer fluid
  • Cell-phone charger
  • Sturdy flashlight and spare batteries
  • Auto-club membership card or roadside assistance number
  • Water bottle and non-perishable snack
  • Spare sunglasses
  • Reflective triangles

Emergency gear

  • Emergency cash or debit card for tow truck, motel, etc.
  • Swiss Army knife or multi-tool
  • List of key phone numbers
  • 18-inch-square scrap of ¾-inch plywood for placing under tire jack
  • First-aid kit
  • Small supply of your prescription medications when traveling
  • Tow strap
  • Jumper cables
  • Towel
  • Blanket
  • 12-volt air compressor
  • Cold-weather work gloves
  • Duct tape
  • Spare pair of windshield wipers
  • Plastic sheeting

Gordon Hard

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