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Winter driving safety checks and balances

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- It's that time of year again. College and pro football are back on television, the leaves are changing color and the snowflakes are beginning to fall. That's right! Winter is arriving and the question is, are you ready? Have you checked to ensure your car has been winterized?

The time to check your car is not after the temperatures have dropped and the snow is on the ground. You should be taking steps now to prepare your car for the upcoming season. Get a tune-up and ask your mechanic to test brakes, battery strength and lights. Check the anti-freeze and all other fluid levels. Inspect the exhaust system for leaks, switch to winter weight oil, and change regular or everyday tires to winter tires.

Also, if this is not the first winter you've used your winter tires, ensure tire treads are still acceptable. You can use a tire-tread depth indicator, or a more simple way is using a penny. If you place a penny upside down into a tread groove, and Lincoln's head is halfway covered, your tread is good. Remember, if your tread is below 2/32", it is time for new tires. Always make sure you have a good set of tire-chains in your vehicle, and ask an expert if you are unsure of the types of chains you need for your vehicle. If you do not know how to put chains on your tires, you can ask a salesman at the store you are purchasing chains to have a mechanic show you how to properly install chains.

If you know you will be leaving the local area for a day trip, or an extended period of time, ensure you have a winter survival kit in your vehicle. This kit needs to be able to sustain you and those persons riding with you until emergency assistance can arrive. Suggestions for items to pack in your kit include one or two gallons of water per person, non-perishable foods such as MRE's, sterno-heaters (remember to use these devices outside of the vehicle), extra clothing, blankets, flashlights with extra batteries, jumper cables, and cell-phone car chargers. These are only suggested items, and you should build your kit to your specific needs.

If you find yourself in an emergency situation where there are no other vehicles around and your vehicle is disabled, do not panic. Try to use your cell phone or other communication devices to call for help. If you know you will be stuck for some time, do not constantly leave the vehicle running. Although you are trying to keep warm, you are also running out of fuel, and, you could succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. Run your vehicle in periodic increments, rolling down your windows slightly to allow fresh air to enter, and giving yourself time to warm-up. Since you do not know how long you will be in this predicament, you must conserve all of your life-sustaining resources. Never leave your vehicle to seek help. The largest percentage of those who succumb to the cold do so because they leave their vehicle in seek of help. Only leave your vehicle if you see help within 100 yards of your vehicle.

Another area of winter driving safety to be very mindful of is slippery ice. This seems obvious, but how many times have you seen vehicles traveling at unsafe speeds during favorable black ice conditions (precipitation coupled with freezing temperatures)? How many times have you noticed a large number of four-wheel drive vehicles upside down or on their sides in a ditch because they were operating their vehicles too fast for conditions? The false sense of security that a four-wheel drive vehicle gives operators is misplaced awareness, but is all too common. What these individuals fail to realize is that four-wheel drive does not prevent you from sliding on ice any more than two-wheel drive. Always drive according to the conditions of the road. If it is raining or snowing, count on roads being wet and slippery. Adjust your speed for the current conditions to manage the risk of being involved in a mishap.

An additional factor to think about is wildlife. You may be operating your vehicle at a proper speed for road conditions, and then out of nowhere, an animal jumps out in front of your vehicle. What is your first reaction? Most people slam their brakes hoping to stop before striking the animal. Some will try and swerve to miss the animal. Neither of these are good choices. You typically will not have enough stopping distance to hit your brakes and refrain from hitting the animal. Additionally, when you hit your brakes hard on your vehicle, your front end will lower, and the animal could possibly roll up into and through your windshield. If you swerve, you could strike a vehicle beside you; creating a new hazard for the vehicles behind and to the side of you. The best choice to make is to hit the animal and gradually slow down, giving vehicles behind you a chance to keep from striking you.

Enjoy the winter in Colorado, spend time driving safely to ski resorts, and back home to fill out your Air Force Space Command Form 87 because you broke your leg on the double-black diamond ski run -- but that's another article.

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