Cheer up. I know we've got potholes everywhere, switch failures on Metra and more bad weather on the way, but the Chicago Auto Show is coming Feb. 8 and, after that, spring.
In the meantime, here's the second installment of winter driving and maintenance tips that premiered in the Jan. 13 column.
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NTSB: Focus on rail safetyFor the first time, the National Transportation Safety Board's Most Wanted List of safety improvements includes rail mass transit. The NTSB cited 2013 accidents including the fatal commuter rail crash in the Bronx in December and a CTA Blue Line train collision in September that caused minor injuries. The agency called for better operational safety on rail mass transit in an announcement last week. The 2014 Most Wanted List also includes improvements to helicopter operations and passenger vessel safety.
Let's start with answers from readers to the one question that stumped our experts at AAA: How do you keep rodents from nesting under your hood?
Self-confessed car junkie Rick Roedel of Elgin was all over it. "Mothballs work but many folks don't care for the smell," he wrote. "I have also read that Bounce dryer sheets are good for keeping pests out, too. For some reason they don't like that smell either. Mouse poison and/or traps are also good, (you) just need to make sure pets can't get at it and you check them regularly or the car will smell like dead mice."
Think we're being frivolous? A family of squirrels found a new home in Jeanette Greco's son's car while he was away at school, causing over $1,200 in damage.
The squirrels enjoyed themselves so much they "eventually chewed many wires and we barely got it to our mechanic in time" before they would have had to tow it, recalled Greco of Hawthorn Woods.
Moving on from rodents, here are other ways to smooth your commute this month with help from AAA's Beth Mosher and alternative fuels/vehicles expert John Walton.
-- What do you do when the windshield washer fluid won't squirt out because it's too cold?
"Assuming the system worked before the temperature dropped, the problem is most likely summer washer fluid in the system that has frozen because it does not have the necessary antifreeze properties for winter operation," Mosher said. "The only fix is to somehow warm the system until any ice melts, then refill and flush the reservoir, pump, tubing and nozzles with fresh winter washer solution."
-- Do hybrids need different treatment from regular cars in the extreme cold?
"Not that I am aware of," said Walton, vice chairman of the nonprofit Chicago Area Clean Cities organization and an agent for Trillium Compressed Natural Gas. But, he advises consulting the owner's manual for specific instructions on your vehicle. "Most hybrid gasoline/electric cars will operate with the engine and not just a battery in (very) cold weather, as the car warms up the engine may stop and start."
-- If your car is out in below zero weather for 10 hours, should you start it midway just to warm up the engine?
"Probably not," Mosher said. "There are many variables involved here, but if your car is parked outside at zero degrees it is likely the engine will have cooled to ambient temperature within five hours, which is half the time cited above. As a result, it will take the same energy to start at that point as it will five hours later."
-- Should you turn everything off in your car (radio, heat) before starting to save the battery?
"This cannot hurt, especially if the battery is weak," Walton said. "However most starting systems disconnect non-needed electrical loads (lights, radio, etc.) when the starter is engaged."
-- 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.
-- Is there a way to tell when you need a new battery? Should you replace it before a deep freeze like this?
"Batteries should be checked before cold weather, especially if they are three years old or so. Some stores ... will check them for free," Walton said. "Service facilities should check the battery condition when the vehicle is serviced. Also, do not forget to check the coolant and replace as needed and also the brake fluid (condensation can develop in the brake lines and in normal weather make it harder to stop and the water droplets can freeze in the winter). Car tires should be checked. Brakes should be checked for proper working operation as well and make sure that the ABS system (if the vehicle has one) is working."
-- What lane (left or right) is safer in snowy or icy conditions?
"Whichever lane is clearer may be better in slick conditions. Avoid unnecessarily changing lanes as the center of the road is often slick with pavement that has not been cleared. Also do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface," Mosher said.
-- If snow is caught up in your mud flaps and rubbing on the tires, should you clean it out? And can deep snow rip out car parts?
"When you drive through snow, the snow that gets logged between the tire and the vehicle will cause friction (and melt away from the tire) and can cause drag, lowering the miles per gallon you get," said Walton, former fleet manager for the DuPage County Forest Preserve. "Turning the front wheel will dislodge some of the trapped snow in the front. I do not usually remove the stuck snow, it will fall off as it warms up and road salt gets to it. While it is snowing or driving on snow-covered streets, you cannot keep it off, and forcibly removing it can damage the vehicle if you are not careful."
-- Is there any benefit to parking cars in sheltered areas when parking outside?
"Definitely. Sheltered vehicles may be protected from wind chills and also from snow and ice," Walton said.
-- What should you do if you end up in a ditch?
"Always stay with your car -- it's how emergency personnel will best be able to help you," Mosher said. "Roads in slick conditions can be extremely dangerous to roam. It's best to keep your seat belt on and use heat sparingly depending on how much gas is in your car. A cellphone charger is always important to have in an emergency kit in your car. Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled-up window to signal distress. At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you."
Yes, even in winter, we've got some construction. And that's why you should be wary of ramp closures on Mannheim Road and Balmoral Avenue east of Mannheim in Rosemont, now through mid-July. It's part of ongoing work to rebuild and widen Mannheim from Irving Park Road to Route 72. Detour routes will be posted.