Driving in Maine’s winter weather…

Well, we had what I have been told our first snowfall here in Maine this past weekend, although I saw none of it, and I felt it would be a good time to address surviving a winter auto emergency and a few driving tips. We all know here in Maine that the highways in winter here can be treacherous, even on a nice sunny day, and an accident or other problem can waylay the best laid plans, possibly stranding you on a lonely stretch of road when surviving is an iffy thing at best. For those who live in the big cities, like up in Bangor or down in Portland, there is little worry of the worst case scenario occurring if you simply break down.

But for those of us who live out of town, and in the hinterlands of Maine, the story can take on a decidedly different picture. My gas lines froze once while driving to a service call trough the western mountain regions. Three and a half hours later the temps climbed high enough that I was able to start the truck and get rolling again. Not one vehicle passed me the whole time I was on the side of the road, and I had no cell phone back then. Not a big deal and little more than a distant memory today, but it illustrates that there is much more to winter driving than making sure you have an ice scraper in the front seat.

The temperature here in Maine fluctuates quite a bit from one section of Maine to another, so we really should take care to be prepared for almost any kind of emergency, from breakdowns and accidents to a surprise blizzard that may strand you in the middle of the interstate system. To better prepare yourself, and your car, there are some basic things you should do to get ready.

  • Inspect your tires, and change them over to all season or snow tires if you can afford it. Also make sure that the tire pressure is maintained to recommended pressures. If I lived in the northern part of Maine I would use nothing less than a real life, honest to goodness snow tire. They have a more aggressive tread than the all seasons do. I would also consider putting studs on as well if you live in the out of the way areas of Maine.
  • Check your antifreeze and make sure that it is good for the lowest possible temperature rating. This usually means that the fluid in your radiator should consist of equal parts antifreeze and water.
  • Replace your wiper blades with new winter grade wipers.
  • Make sure all of your lamps are working properly. Many people forget to check their driving/fog lamps and emergency flashers, as well as any lamps that may be on your doors. These are all important and may help avoid an even greater catastrophe if they all work, especially during a snow storm.
  • Check your car battery and make sure it is up to par. If it is at least five years old it may be a good idea to replace it if you can afford to do so.
  • Ethanol is required in all gasoline in Maine now, and that causes what is known as phase separation more rapidly in colder temperatures. Make sure your fuel tank is kept filled, and try not to go below a half tank unless you are on a long trip. the excess water in your fuel will cause the lines to freeze up quicker. It would also be a good time to replace your fuel filter as well. Don’t succumb to the pressure to add what is called fuel dryer to your tank. This stuff contains alcohol and makes the process of phase separation leading to too much water in your fuel occur even more rapidly.

When driving the highways you should always be aware of the temperature and learn to be extra careful when the temp dips below 35 degrees. Even on a clear sunny day you may encounter black ice unexpectedly, causing you to lose control of your car. Bridge decks are also a high risk area as they freeze quicker than the pavement does since there in no ground under the bridge for insulation. Also make sure you have a pair of good no glare sunglasses in the car at all times. Squinty driving can be hazardous.

If you find yourself skidding out of control, gently steer into the skid to avoid making the car go even further out of control. Ease up on the brakes and if you can, shift into neutral when safe. Turn your flashers on as well to alert oncoming motorists of the danger. If you do get into an accident, remember to follow the same guidelines as you would at any other time of the year. Stay in your car if safe to do so, and turn the flashers on and alert the police to your accident. Having a cell phone with a charger is vital this time of year. Make sure you check for any leaking fluids before allowing the car to run for heat while you wait. If you see anything dripping from the car, don’t take any chances. It is better to be cold than burned to a crisp because of a leaky fuel tank, ain’t it?

Always drive at or below the posted speed limit, according to the conditions you encounter. If it is snowing, it is a good idea to drive about ten miles an hour under the posted limits on the main roads such as the state and interstate highways. Maintain more distance than normal between cars when the weather is inclement. Never jam on your breaks. Gently pump them to come to a controlled stop. If you have ABS on your car simply apply pressure to the brake pedal and let the computer do the work. Drive with your headlights on at all times.

Checklists for winter driving needs…

I have a little checklist of supplies you should have in your car while traveling out of town, or even in town. The list is divided into two parts. The first part is of things your should always have in your car, and the second part is of things you should keep in a bag, and bring into your house when not travelling to avoid freezing.

  1. Always in your car…
    1. Steel shovel, small enough to fit in your trunk. The plastic ones have a tendency to crack and break when you least desire that to happen.
    2. Ice scraper and snow broom.
    3. Jumper cables. Get at least a ten gauge wire with heavy duty clips and at least twelve feet long. A pair with side terminal adapters is a good option to have.
    4. Tow rope. Get a pre made rope at least fifteen feet long with steel hooks on the ends, if you can.
    5. Blanket. Get a real blanket, not a cheap five dollar throw that won’t cover you completely. I would recommend one of those orange and silver rescue blankets as the silver will reflect your own body heat. Get one for everyone that may be traveling with you.
    6. First aid kit.
    7. Empty fuel can. Unless you have an open bed pickup it is dangerous to carry fuel with you. The fumes could build up in your car and kill you in many ways.
    8. Siphon tube and pump. Sucking gas out of a car looks good in the Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s actually a pretty unhealthy thing to do, especially with the ethanol added to the gas now.
    9. Telephone numbers for the police, road service company and your insurance company.
    10. Flashlight or trouble light.
    11. Reflector triangles that you can put out as warning signs. There are some models that fold up into a self contained carry case.
    12. Wheel chocks. These will keep your car from rolling if you have to change a tire.
    13. Salt and sand. I carry one bag of salt and one bag of sand when the snow starts flying. If you get stuck these will help get you unstuck much quicker because of the extra traction they give.
    14. Tire chains. Learn how to use them before the snow falls. There are many versions on the market, so it would be a smart thing to familiarize yourself with them when dry weather is available.
  2. In a carry bag…
    1. Water
    2. High calorie food bars
    3. Flashlight with extra batteries, or a wind up flashlight. Solar flashlights are fine if there is sunlight to charge them with, but we get many winter days when there is insufficient sun to charge those batteries.
    4. Cell phone and charger
    5. Extra trash bags for when you just can’t hold it any longer.
    6. A book or some games if you have kids in the car.
    7. Any medication you (or someone with you) may be needing in the event of an extended trip.

That’s just a few ideas. As usual I encourage you to get the mind working and think the issue of winter driving through your head. Equip your vehicle as suits your needs and pocketbook and learn more about the risks of winter driving, and ways to avoid those risks. Remember to be prepared means having to live with a survival mindset. If you are always prepared for the unexpected, the unexpected will never happen. And make sure you always dress warmly for these winter road trips. A nice warm coat, hats and gloves or mittens won’t do you any harm, even if it is a nice day when you first set out on your drive. You never know when the weather will turn brutal here in the Maine winters as we survive the coming times.

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