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'Tis the Season to Travel

On the Road Cover Story

cars.com On the Road Weekly Publication

10:54 AM EST, December 7, 2011

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By Jim Gorzelany

CTW Features

As the song says, "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go." Holiday road trips are an annual ritual for many families, but experts caution motorists to make sure their cars are ready for the elements so this year’s visit doesn’t become memorable for the wrong reasons.

"No one wants to be stranded in the cold by a vehicle breakdown," says John Nielsen, director, AAA Approved Auto Repair. "Properly preparing your vehicle for winter driving is essential for the safety of all passengers and will greatly decrease the chances of your vehicle letting you down."

When in doubt, motorists should have their vehicles thoroughly checked out by an automotive technician and have any necessary repairs or maintenance procedures performed before hitting the road. Otherwise, those who aren’t afraid to open the hood and get their hands dirty can perform these basic automotive self-checks:

• Make sure the battery terminals are free from corrosion and the connections are tight. If the battery is several years old, buy a new one before embarking on a winter road trip. It’s cheap insurance against a breakdown.

• Examine the engine’s drive belts for cracks or fraying; if worn have them replaced, or have this done regularly at 60,000-mile intervals. Likewise, check hoses for leaks and cracks or loose clamps; give them a squeeze and replace those that are brittle or feel spongy.

• Inspect the tires for uneven and excessive tread wear and make sure they’re inflated according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

• Check the level of coolant in the radiator; if it’s low, replenish it with a 50/50 mix of coolant and water. Otherwise, test its antifreeze protection level with an inexpensive tester that’s sold at any auto parts store; if it tests low, have the system flushed and refilled.

• Likewise, check engine and transmission oil, brake fluid and windshield washer fluid levels, topping off as necessary. It’s a good idea to have the oil changed before embarking on a road trip for extra protection, and be sure to carry an extra jug of washer fluid in the trunk.

Before leaving home it's a good idea to plot a course and account for fuel stops in advance. The idea is to prevent the vehicle’s fuel level from getting below one-quarter of a tank to account for unforeseen delays, such as closed roads, bad weather or a breakdown. To that end, pack an emergency kit for the trunk that contains jumper cables, a flashlight, ice scraper, flares or warning triangles, extra gloves and hats, blankets, a small snow shovel, snacks and a first aid kit.

Don't forget to take along a charged cell phone (and car charger) pre-programmed with emergency numbers and family contacts. Having a portable GPS system or a navigation app loaded into a smartphone is always a good idea, especially for the directionally challenged. Always let friends and relatives know when you’re leaving and what routes you’ll be following in case something should go wrong.

Once on the road, be sure to drive according to the elements, slowing down as conditions worsen and leaving extra room between their cars and the traffic ahead. Keep in mind that brakes won’t work as well on slippery roads as they do on a dry pavement. Keep an eye out for frozen patches, especially on bridges and overpasses, which tend to freeze sooner than paved roads. Avoid using the vehicle’s cruise control when driving in the rain or snow, since this tends to delay a driver’s reaction time. And keep the headlamps on in all but bright and sunny conditions, both to see better and be seen by other motorists.

Grandmother is waiting with fresh-baked cookies, you know.