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How to keep your winter commute safe and on time

(MoneyWatch) Now matter how long your commute is or what kind of car you drive, being prepared for bad weather this winter can pay off, big time. Planning in advance can keep you safe -- and on time -- when Old Man Winter unexpectedly rears his head. Recently, I spoke to Ginnie Pritchett, spokesperson for AAA, about winterizing your ride.

MoneyWatch: What are some things every driver should buy now?

Ginnie Pritchett: You should pick up any items on this list you don't already have: A small bag of abrasive material like salt or sand, a scraper, a small shovel, traction mats, a flashlight with new batteries, window washer solvent, a cloth or roll of paper towels, jumper cables, a blanket and extra warm clothes, drinking water and warning devices like flares or triangles.

MW: What are some features to look for when buying an ice scraper?

GP: It should be made of plastic to avoid scratching glass, and have a reasonable width to speed up the job, but it shouldn't be so big as to reduce the force that can be applied to heavily encrusted glass. It should have a comfortable handle that provides good grip when wearing gloves and raised ridges or notches on one side to help break up ice frozen to the glass.

MW: How can drivers improve visibility in inclement weather?

GP: Make sure all the vehicle lights are working and not covered by snow. Clear loose snow from roof, trunk lid and glass. Make sure your windshield washers work properly and the reservoir is filled with a winter fluid solution that won't freeze. Test that your blades clear the glass with a single swipe. If you live where there is frequent snow, get special winter wiper blades that have a rubber cover over the frame to prevent snow and ice from clogging the mechanism.

MW: Does everyone need snow tires?

GP: There is no substitute for snow tires in moderate to heavy snow. All-season tires (provided they have sufficient tread depth) work reasonably well in light to moderate snow. People who live in Northern climes where there is significant snowfall will benefit most from snow tires. Also, rear-wheel-drive cars and trucks, which have less weight over the driven wheels, benefit more from snow tires than do front-wheel drive vehicles.

MW: What's the single best way to avoid an accident this winter?

GP: Adjust your speed to the conditions. Far too many drivers fail to slow down when traction is reduced or when visibility is poor. As a result, they "use up" their safety margin, leaving no reserve to deal with issues like losing traction and going into a skid.

MW: Besides slowing down, what else can you do to prevent a collision in bad conditions?

GP: You should maintain more space between you and the vehicles around you. This means not only following farther behind vehicles directly ahead, but also ensuring you have at least one open space to either the left or right side of your vehicle. Lastly, you should avoid any potential distractions. Driving in good conditions is challenging enough, but you will need every ounce of concentration to drive safely in poor conditions.

MW: Is there anything else that AAA recommends doing before this winter gets wicked?

GP: We recommend making sure your AAA membership is up to date and programming your cell phone with 1-800-AAA-HELP. A thorough pre-Winter maintenance inspection at a local AAA Approved Auto Repair facility is also a smart idea.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user AgnosticPreachersKid

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