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Keeping yourself - and your car - safe during the winter driving season

Winter weather is here, which means it's time slow down on the roads, don't forget regular maintenance on your car, and make sure you have supplies in your car in case of an emergency.

While winter driving can be challenging, preventing crashes comes down to driver behavior, according to Jane Neubauer, Otter Tail County Safe Communities Coalition Coordinator.

"We do see an increase in crashes when the weather changes where people are traveling too fast for the conditions, so it's important to remind people to slow down when the weather changes," Neubauer said. "That's our biggest message."

Otter Tail County Highway Engineer Rick West explained the county has 1,070 miles of highway to plow that they divide up into 25 plow routes. He said the best thing drivers can do is give the plows room to work.

"If you're approaching a plow, give it room to do its job, we see people every year, they are in a hurry and if it's dry snow they try to pass. And that's dangerous, you can't see what's coming," West said.

He recommends checking road conditions before leaving the house to allow sufficient travel time so you don't feel rushed. "It's winter time in our state, the roads aren't always dry and clear, so take the time to be prepared."

West added that maintenance workers start working on the roads at 4 a.m. and run one, long shift. They generally make two rounds, concluding around noon. If snow continues, then they will do another round, but they typically aren't plowing until 9 p.m.

Other advice from West, if you do find yourself stranded, stay with your vehicle, he said, you have a much better chance of surviving in the winter months.

Be prepared by keeping a survival kit in your car. Experts recommend the following items: jumper cables, blankets, high-energy food and sand or cat litter for tire traction. The core safety tips for winter driving are to decrease or adjust speeds based on road conditions, increase the stopping distance between vehicles, and stay back from snow plows. And, if severe weather is threatening, avoid driving altogether until road crews can clear the roads.

If you find yourself in a skid, try to stay calm. Ease your foot off the gas and steer the vehicle the direction you want the vehicle to go. If you have anti-lock brakes, apply a steady, firm pressure — don't pump anti-lock brakes. Remember, don't use cruise control on snowy, icy or wet roads.

Now is not the time to slack on car maintenance. Cold weather causes fluctuations in tire pressure and low tire pressure is dangerous on snowy, icy and wet roads.

Others things to check are coolant, oil, and tire pressure, all items they look at for you when you come in for an oil change according to Lee Metcalf, owner of Hometown Repair in Perham.

It's important to make sure you have the correct antifreeze-to-water mixture to prevent fluid from freezing your radiator. "It needs to be good for the proper temperature, we recommend for -40, that's something we check this time of year when doing an oil change," Metcalf said.

Metcalf added you also want freeze resistant wiper fluid to keep your windshield clear, and if you have a tire that looks flat, don't drive on it. It's not worth it.

Both Neubauer and West said that every year we all seem to need to relearn winter driving habits, such as slowing down when approaching intersections and planning ahead a little bit even if it's just looking out the window before walking out the door.

For information on travel conditions, check out the MNDOT website or sign up for weather advisory alerts on your phone.

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