FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Nov. 16, 2016) - Winter weather can wreak havoc on roadways. That makes learning how to safely drive in snowy and icy conditions vital. And it's not just those who live in the North or Midwest who need winter driving skills. In recent years, snow even touched south Alabama, treating residents to a rare driving experience. Whether you live in Alaska or Alabama, here are some tips to help keep you safe.

Winter defensive driving is more than just maintaining control on snowy, icy roads. It begins long before you get into your car, buckle your seat belt or start your engine. Before all that, you need to be planning, doing things like checking the weather forecast and listening to the radio or TV for announcements about accidents, highway closings and road advisories. If this information is not available on the radio, call your state's highway patrol for up-to-date information. If you have access to the Internet, you can go to the National Traffic and Road Closure website at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo/ and click on your state for road conditions.

When planning your route, avoid roads that can become dangerous during winter. Also, let someone know your plans so authorities will know where to begin looking if you become stranded. A tragic example of failing to do that is the Kim family. In November 2006, they took the wrong exit off Interstate 5 in Oregon and decided to try to reach their destination by a camp road that appeared to offer an alternate route. The road, however, was not maintained during the winter and they soon became lost. As the family spent the night in their vehicle, they were trapped by a winter storm. After waiting six days to be rescued, the father tried to hike to reach help. While the rest of the Kim family was ultimately rescued, the father died of hypothermia after hiking more than 11 miles in the snow. Straying from their driving plan proved fatal for this family.

Although the Kim family is an unfortunate example, it's not just mountain roads that pose a danger. Being exposed to both above and below freezing temperatures, bridges and overpasses freeze first and are susceptible to black ice. Because of that, it's important to reduce your speed when approaching bridges or overpasses and avoid braking while passing over them.

As you drive on wintry roads, always accelerate easily, turn cautiously, brake carefully and leave plenty of distance between you and the other cars. The normal two-second following rule used when driving on clear highways needs to be expanded to five or six seconds during wintry conditions.

If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it's important to not become overconfident. While four-wheel-drive provides better traction than two-wheel-drive on snowy roads, it does nothing to improve your braking ability. Also, some four-wheel-drive systems can actually send you out of control in icy conditions.

You also need to make sure your car is ready for winter's adverse weather conditions. First, ensure your tires have enough tread to grip the road adequately. Depending on the weather conditions where you live, you may want to consider mounting snow or studded tires to get the best traction. Take the time to speak with a tire professional or consult your automobile owner's manual.

Also, make sure your windshield wipers are in good condition, not cracked or worn. Check your windshield washer reservoir and make sure it's filled with a quality washer fluid designed for winter temperatures. And remember, you have to see through both sides of your windshield, so take the time to clean the inside too.

As funny as it sounds, you need your air conditioner to run effectively during winter. Air conditioners are very useful in removing condensation and frost from the inside of windows. Simply set the temperature on warm when doing this - something many cars do automatically when you choose the defrost setting.

Headlights help other cars see you and allow you to better see the environment where you're driving. To get the most out of your headlights and taillights, make sure they are clear of snow. Consider replacing the bulbs before winter begins and remember to always use your low beams when snow is falling.

While winter accidents can never be completely eliminated, preparing your vehicle and driving carefully will lessen the odds you'll end up waiting for a tow truck or ambulance. After all, don't you have better things to do this winter?

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