Car Mom's Winter Driving 101

After my stint at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., I leave with a sense of enlightenment. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I've been driving for so many years without understanding the importance of tire care, and such basic driving concepts as braking, accelerating, oversteer, understeer and weight transfer.

With help from Bridgestone's Winter Driving School, here's the Car Mom's Guide to tire care and winter driving:

Tires 101*:

What I thought: I did my research and bought a car with all the fancy safety features; antilock brakes, vehicle dynamic stability control, air bags and more. Tires? It has 4!

Eureka!: The only things connecting my very fast moving hunk of metal to the highway are the four contact points on the tires -- when totaled about the size of my child's spelling homework (an 8-1/2-by-11 inch piece of paper). Everything my car does (braking, accelerating and cornering) is transmitted through those four points to the road. In other words, tires matter!

What I thought: I have my tires rotated (or I did once or twice). I'm sure they fill them up with air. If I notice one looking low or flat, I'll take it in.

Eureka!: Tire pressure constantly goes down (about 1 psi per month) just from the oxygen molecules leaking through the rubber. In addition, tires lose 1 psi for every 10 degree drop in outside temperature. As my tire pressure goes down, my load-carrying capacity goes down (no more hauling the kids' friends around), my fuel economy goes down (more stops and more dough dished out at the pump), and the tires wear more quickly (even more dough for new tires). A visual check or kicking the tires is not an accurate measurement method.

What to do: It is recommended that everyone check the tire pressure once a month. Like that's going to happen! When pressured on the subject, Bill VandeWater, Bridgestone's sales engineering consumer products manager, conceded that once every three months is better than nothing. That sounds doable.

How to do it: With a private tutorial from VandeWater, I've nailed the basic technique -- no mechanical skills, filthy fingernails or plumber's butt required!

Before you Start:

Make sure your tires are "cold," meaning they haven't been driven on for at least three hours. Also, you need to have a tire pressure gauge that has been checked for calibration at a tire store (some may consistently measure low or high -- mine measures 4 psi low). Digital gauges are the most accurate, but also the most expensive.

Step 1: Determine your tires' proper inflation level. Look for a small sticker on the driver's door jam. It may also be located inside the gas tank cover. If you can't find it there, check the owners manual that's been hibernating in the glove compartment since you bought the car. Don't feel bad; nobody else reads those either. Don't be surprised if the required inflation level is different for the front and rear tires.

Step 2: Remove the valve cap from the tire (and consider replacing it with one sporting a rubber gasket in the cap to help keep crud out of the tire's air valve). Don't use ones claiming to measure the air pressure -- they supposedly turn red when air pressure is low. These have not proved to be accurate in Bridgestone's tests.

Step 3: Place the front of the tire pressure gauge over the air valve and give a small swift push. Listen for the pssst of air and look for the measurement stick protruding from the bottom of the gauge (a digital gauge will simply show the number in the measurement window).

Step 4: If your tires are underinflated, fill them up little by little while rechecking the pressure each time. It's best to overinflate slightly, and then bleed out a touch of air using the bleeder knob on the back of the tire pressure gauge until you reach the proper level.

The hip, the new, the cool -- yes I'm still talking about tires:

Nitrogen -- Inflating tires with nitrogen (a trend that's starting to catch on with some car dealerships and tire centers) can help prolong the inevitable task of checking tire pressure. When inflated with nitrogen, the average Jane can go from checking her tire pressure once per month to once every three months. Nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen, so they are less likely to seep through the tire walls.

TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System) -- The Tread Act requires that by 2007, 100 percent of new vehicles must come equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems. This system notifies the driver when a significant and potentially hazardous loss in tire pressure has occurred. However, it's not a replacement for manually checking tire pressure. These systems are only required to sound an alarm if the tire pressure drops by 25 percent. By that time, severe tire damage may already have occurred. More accurate after-market tire pressure monitoring systems that display the actual pressure of each tire can be installed in older vehicles, but for a pretty price. They are best installed by professionals, or you run the risk of having unsightly wires and monitors running through the car.

Run Flats -- Run flat tires (available as an added cost upgrade on some new models) are designed to run up to 150 miles in emergency situations with no air pressure in them. This allows the driver to avoid stopping in a dangerous location to change a tire or wait for help. For busy moms, run flats can also let you carry on with normal life until you have time to schedule an appointment with the dealer or tire store. Run flats can be used only on vehicles equipped with TPMS. Temporary Mobility Kits -- TMK's, or kits that temporarily fix a flat without having to install a spare tire, come in two varieties: A version that hooks up to an air compressor, and a simpler and smaller aerosol can version. In the event of a flat, the aerosol can is attached to the tire valve; a sealant is released followed by some compressed air to refill the flat. These are becoming more popular than lugging around a space tire. They save weight (and fuel economy), save the 'ol budget (cheaper than a spare), and also save space in the trunk (leaving more room for that double-size super-dooper off-road stroller with attached cappuccino machine). Similar to run flats, TMKs are designed only for temporary repair in an emergency. The tire must then be thoroughly inspected by a professional for internal or external wear or damage.

Winter Driving 101*:

In addition to having high-quality, properly inflated tires there are some things you can do to make sure the rest of this winter, and inevitable subsequent ones, are as safe as possible.

Clear the vehicle of snow Snow that is left on the hood or roof of your car can blow onto the windows and decrease visibility. In snowy or even just cloudy weather, light levels are already low. Making sure you have a good view out your car's windows can help you see and prepare for emergencies as they pop up in front of you. It's also a good idea to wear high-quality sunglasses when driving in low-light situations. This helps you see different textures and surfaces in the road, avoid slippery ones and find places with more grip. As a mom, my kids are always playing with my sunglasses, so high-quality ones are out of the picture. In this case cheapos are better than nothing.

Make sure you have an emergency kit Besides the obvious and most often suggested items such as a shovel, flashlight, blankets and jumper cables (check out the Travel Mom's winter car kit suggestions.), there are some other ideas that families traveling with children should consider keeping in their cars. For families with young infants or toddlers, keep an emergency supply of diapers, single-serve powdered infant formula and bottled water to mix it with. Kid-friendly spoilproof snacks such as pretzels and goldfish crackers can stave off the munchies if stranded in poor weather. Even small candies or lollipops that I wouldn't normally consider giving my children can keep them calm and quiet when stuck (who wants to listen to hours of whining while waiting for roadside assistance). I use all natural Queasy Pops by Three Lollies that also help calm queasy or carsick tummies. It's also a good idea to keep a few activities that can be stored away for safe-keeping such as travel games and cards, which can keep everyone occupied.

Keep the interior temp warm, not hot A car that is too hot inside can make the driver drowsy and unable to react quickly to emergencies on the road. If your vehicle has "seat heat," use that to make you feel toasty while keeping the cabin temp down. A 1996 study by Volvo Cars found that participants driving with a cabin temperature of 80 degrees had a dramatically higher number of driving mistakes than people driving with a cabin temperature of 70 degrees. Warming up your vehicle before getting in is helpful to the car itself (engines run better at their optimal temperature) and can also help keep little kiddies and from complaining in the car, and hence taking the driver's attention away from the driving. Some cities have an ordinance against running your vehicle if you're not in it, as this can cause increased pollution and increase the incidence of stolen vehicles, so check with your city beforehand.

Slow down Eighty percent of car accidents could be avoided if the driver had one more second to react. Slowing down increases the distance between your car and the car in front of you, allowing you more time to react if there's a problem ahead. Decreasing speed can also increase tire traction (giving the tires more time to move water or melting ice through the treads and away from the road). Skidding (both understeering and oversteering) can be countered by slowing down and gaining traction.

Brake OR steer In the event of having to quickly break and steer around a hazard or accident in the road, it's best to remember to brake or steer but not both at the same time. Brake first to slow your speed, and then remove your foot from the brake while steering around the problem area.

Practice and know your car Each car handles differently on snow and ice. Does your vehicle have antilock brakes (ABS), stability control? These features can change the way your car reacts in poor weather conditions, and ultimately the way you drive. It's important to know your vehicle and its features. Take your car to an empty parking lot when there's snow, ice or water on the ground. Practice accelerating and braking to feel how far you can push before losing traction. Feel how your car's weight shifts and transfers when turning and skidding. Practicing these maneuvers in a controlled environment can increase your confidence and make you more prepared to handle emergencies on the road.

The School The Bridgestone Winter Driving School, in existence since 1983, is located in Steamboat Springs, Colo. It provides participants with a safe environment to practice winter driving techniques. Half day, full day and two-day courses are available, ranging from $155 to $1,550. A variety of Toyota vehicles (sedans, SUVs and trucks) with front-wheel, rear-wheel and four-wheel drive allow participants to practice reacting to adverse conditions until it becomes more instinctual. "The school allows you to drive with ease on snow- and ice-covered roads, avoid panic, and develop good reflexes -- all in a fun atmosphere," states the brochure. For me, the biggest benefit of this school is my boost in driving confidence. I am able to push the limits of my comfort zone while being guided by skilled instructors via a two-way radio in the vehicle. After sliding and skidding around corner after corner (and successfully pulling out of them) a little patch of black ice on the highway seems miraculously uneventful.

The simple act of researching this article has given me more driving and tire care education than I ever knew I needed. After expanding my brain cells with the gravity of this information, I can't help but be a safer, more alert and aware driver. I have a newfound respect for the winter road and the balloons of rubber and air that carry me and my children safely over it.

For more information on tire care and safety, visit www.TireSafety.com.

For more information about the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, visit www.WinterDrive.com.

The full archive of "Car Mom" Kristin Varela's Mother-Proof reviews can be found at www.MotherProof.com.

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