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updated: 1/13/2014 4:48 PM

Improve your winter driving IQ

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  • Across the suburbs last week, cars got stuck in snow and fishtailed on icy streets.

    Across the suburbs last week, cars got stuck in snow and fishtailed on icy streets.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • Jump-starting a hybrid can be different from jump-starting a conventional car, so it's best to check your owner's manual first.

    Jump-starting a hybrid can be different from jump-starting a conventional car, so it's best to check your owner's manual first.
    Daily Herald File Photo


Oh, those treacherous winter commutes in my old hatchback, creeping along icy roads, fearful of getting stuck. Good thing I've got my trusty Subaru with its anti-lock brakes.

See ... I'm skidding now, but if I just tap the brakes ... or wait ... is it brake pedal to the floor? Tap? Pedal to the floor?

"Not to worry," I told my spouse an hour later, "I may have banged into a snowbank and blown a tire, but it will make for a timely column on winter driving."

You may be a winter driving guru, smirking at my idiocy. But if not, read on as local experts answer questions about vehicle maintenance and handling during extreme weather.

First off, how do you apply an anti-lock braking system?

"Do not remove your foot from the brake," AAA spokeswoman Beth Mosher advised. "When you put on the brakes hard enough to make the wheels lock momentarily, you will typically feel the brake pedal vibrate and pulsate back against your foot. This is normal, and the system is working as it is designed to. Do not pump the pedal or remove your foot from the brake."

• Do blankets or hand-warmers left overnight on the battery in cold weather help it start?

"Keeping a battery warm can help it operate better, but be careful that nothing is used that can start a fire or damage a battery," said John Walton of Wheaton, an alternative fuels/vehicles expert. "Damaged or charging batteries can give off explosive hydrogen gas. A sealed battery should not give off gas, but can if it is damaged."

• What should you do about tire pressure in very cold conditions? Should you fill the tires up?

"Use the tire sizes recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer for best snow traction," Mosher said. "And ensure the tires are properly inflated to the amount given in the vehicle owner's manual or on the inside vehicle door -- not to the amount shown on the tire."

• Is it true you should keep your tank full of gas to prevent it from freezing? And do additives (like Heet) really help? Do gas lines really freeze?

According to the University of Illinois, gas freezes around minus-40 to minus-58 degrees, said Walton, vice chairman of the nonprofit Chicago Area Clean Cities organization and an agent for Trillium Compressed Natural Gas.

"What people think is gas freezing is usually water in the gas line that can freeze and block gas lines. Additives can be used, but I recommend only using additives (like Heet) that are recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.

"As to keeping the tank full, it is not necessary, though I like to have over half a tank or so when extreme cold weather hits so there is no fear of running low and having to fill my car when it is 20 below zero."

And, if you want another opinion, the Illinois Department of Transportation recommends keeping your gas tank two-thirds full in cold weather.

• How much gas are you really wasting if you turn your heat on at full blast?

"None," Mosher said. "Even the very best automotive gasoline engines are only 25 to 30 percent efficient. Most of the fuel energy they consume is lost as waste heat that is dispersed into the outside air -- primarily from the radiator. Diverting some of this wasted energy (via the heater) to warm the interior makes occupants more comfortable but has no effect on overall engine efficiency.

"Air conditioning, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. The AC compressor requires engine power to run, so the colder you want the temperature inside the car, the more fuel the engine will burn."

• What's the right way to get out of deep snow or ice when you're stuck and spinning?

"Clear a path in front of the wheels for several feet," Mosher said. "With the front wheels pointed straight to minimize rolling resistance, shift into drive and with gentle pressure on the accelerator, try to ease out without spinning the wheels. If the wheels spin, you will only dig deeper into the snow.

"When more traction is needed (on ice), use traction mats or kitty litter or sand in front of and in back of the wheels. Stop if the vehicle wheels still spin and consider rocking the vehicle back and forth. Use minimum power when rocking the vehicle back and forth."

• What do you do when your car is fishtailing? Do you maintain speed, decelerate or accelerate?

"Gently take your foot off the accelerator and gently apply the brake. If you are skidding, look and steer in the direction you want to go," Mosher said.

• How do you jump-start a hybrid? Is it OK to use a regular car and battery to jump it?

That depends on what type of hybrid you have, Walton and Mosher said, advising drivers to check the owner's manual first.

One intriguing question we didn't answer was how to prevent mice or other pests from making a nice, warm nest under your hood. Got a solution? Got some winter driving tips? Or a question? Drop me an email at and we may continue this discussion in next week's column.

Your voice

Terry Tallian of Wood Dale was perturbed by December's column on injuries and deaths at railway crossings. People ignoring warnings at crossings "is a common occurrence. Sadly, it is mostly ignored by law enforcement," Tallian wrote.

"One place where it is frequent is the Franklin Park station on the Milwaukee West Line. People run around the train all the time. You never see a cop giving out tickets, though, which is strange because the police station was across the street from the station. I am really surprised that no one has gotten injured there."

Wednesday morning "some fool ran across the tracks right in front of an inbound train pulling into the Wood Dale station," he wrote. "It was close. I don't know why the Metra police don't randomly show up at stations and start handing out warnings to those who violate the crossing protection."

Gridlock alert

Starting today, Central Avenue near Midway Airport will be closed at 64th Street for sewer work. The closures could last until Feb. 28, and detours will be posted.

One more thing

Pace will distribute Ventra cards from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Woodfield Mall's Entrance 1 between Nordstrom and JC Penney. Fill out a form and you'll receive a card loaded with $2 in fares. To learn more go to

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