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Q & A With AAA's Steve Brown
Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000; 1 p.m. EST

Steve Brown is the manager for field services for the Chantilly division at AAA Mid-Atlantic. He was previously the AAA field representative for Montgomery County.

An ASE certified master automotive technician for 18 years, Brown has plenty of good advice about navigating wintry roads and preparing your car for subzero weather.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Steve, and welcome. What's the first thing drivers should do for and to their cars to prepare for the winter?

Steve Brown: Drivers should take their vehicle to their automotive technician to have the vehicle checked out and winterized. The vehicle should be checked out for any necessary repairs that may put the driver in a breakdown situation. Then the technician or driver should check the tire pressure (most cars should be between 32 and 35 psi. The tire sidewall has the recommended tire pressure). Next have the anti-freeze tested to ensure that the coolant system is protected to below zero. Normally this is a 60% antifreeze and 40% water mixture. Water or antifreeze by itself will freeze and damage the engine. Check the windshield washer fluid level and add a windshield antifreeze that will protect this system from freezing. Most people do not think about this system until they are on the road and don't have washer fluid to clean their windshield. Check the other fluids and top them off, like oil, transmission, and power steering fluids. And don't forget to put on a new set of wiper blades.

D.C.: What's the best way to be a defensive driver when SUV drivers are sliding all over the roads because their owners think four wheel drive gives them license to barrel through snow and sleet?

Steve Brown: Most four-wheel vehicle owners believe that their SUV can go anywhere. The fact is that its the driver's skill and ability to drive on snow and ice that counts. We get our fair share of ice and snow, but not enough for most people to be skilled and actually prepared to drive under these conditions. The best thing that any good driver can do in this case is to drive defensively and watch out for the other person, because most of the time, they are not watching out for you. Give the other driver enough space in front of you to allow yourself enough stopping distance under the conditions and be prepared to take defensive actions to protect yourself and your passengers.

washingtonpost.com: What's the most common emergency that AAA gets called with during the winter?

Steve Brown: In 1999, AAA serviced over 450,000 calls. By the end of 2000, we will be over 500,000 service calls. During the winter months and extreme cold weather, a large volume of calls are for jump-starts. This is another item that you can have your technician check and do a battery load test on to see if your battery will last through the winter. If you have not had the battery changed in the past four years, chances are that you will need one this winter. In this case, have your technician change the battery. This can keep you warm and safe.

Winslow, Ariz.: What the best thing to do when your car breaks down, particularly during a storm when visibility is poor? I've heard that you should pull onto the shoulder, but I've also heard that can be dangerous. And should you stay in your car or not?

Steve Brown: First, I would start the winter season off by carrying a safety kit in your vehicle. Put a blanket, flashlight(put the batteries in a plastic bag for longer life), gloves, old coat or jacket, flares, salt, cat liter, and a safety beacon. The key to survival in this situation is to try and be prepared. If your car beaks down on the highway during a storm, then try to pull the vehicle off of the road. Stay with the vehicle and use your flashlight, flares, and/or safety beacon to signal another driver. Your chances of survival in staying with the vehicle is better than trying to walk to get help and taking a chance of being hit by another vehicle.

PA transplant in VA: I'd like to submit the things I keep in my car in the winter: jug of water, bag of snacks, such as peanut butter crackers, that don't spoil easily, large plastic garbage bag, candles and coffee cans (you can put the candle in the coffee can without lid to use for heat if you're stuck), matches in waterproof container, blanket.

Steve Brown: Great list to carry as a safety kit.

Bethesda, Md.: How do snow tires differ from regular radial tires? Should I think about snow tires if I am considering doing a lot of winter driving? I have an all-wheel-drive Subaru.

Steve Brown: Almost all tires on the market for cars are radial tires. Most four wheel drive vehicles come with a combination tire that is called an all-season tire. This type of tire provides the best coverage under all conditions. If it snows and you have to drive in the snow, then you might try to let 2 -3 psi out of each tire. This provides better traction under snowy conditions, but is temporary. After the roads are cleared, put the tire pressure back to its correct setting. The difference between snow tires and regular radial tires are that the grooves in snow tires are wider to allow the snow to come out of the grooves. This provides improved traction. You have to weigh the cost of the all-season/all-terrain tires to the cost of having snow tires for the season and having them mounted and balanced.

Bethesda, Md.: Antifreeze by itself can freeze? That seems counter-intuitive.

Steve Brown: Antifreeze by itself can freeze. Antifreeze is a chemical that reacts with water to lower the freeze point of the water. It needs water to activate it. Antifreeze has a dual purpose in that it also reacts with the water in the coolant system in the summer time to raise the boiling point of water, keeping the system from boiling over.

Capitol City: I live in downtown D.C. and park my car all the time on city streets. Is there any additional wear and tear I should look for, since my car is never covered? What affect do winter urban streets have on a car?

Steve Brown: Unfortunately, in your case you cannot keep your car off of the streets and this poses a problem. With your car parked on the street, the snow plow pushes snow up on your car. This snow has dirt and chemicals in it that can be harmful to your car's paint, etc. Try to wash the car often and since it stays outside, check your fluids more often. The one item that most forget about is the windshield washer fluid. Also your vehicle's owners manual has a recommended oil for winter conditions. This is usually 5W30 oil. This is a lighter weight oil and does not get as thick which will allow your engine turn over easier and start better during the cold weather.

Washington, D.C.: I am very concerned about the upcoming weather reports stating freezing rain and a possibility of snow in the near future because D.C. drivers are so rude and disrespectful (especially SUV drivers who feel they have right to tailgate you and mow you down) Is there any plans to monitor this situation?

Steve Brown: The police departments around our area are very aware of this type of situation and are keeping an eye on it.

Washington, D.C.: I own a rear-wheel drive vehicle (BMW). I slip and slide, even with good tires, in snow and rain. What's the best way to maneuver in inclement whether with this type of car?

Steve Brown: One way to improve your traction is to buy salt bags, sandbags, or cat liter bags. Put them in the trunk of your car to improve your traction. Also if you get stuck, then use some of these items and pour a line under your drive wheels in the direction you want to go. This will improve you chances of getting yourself unstuck.

If you start to slide, then steer in the direction that you want to go. When the tires catch traction the car will try to go in the direction that you steer. Remember, if you steer towards to wall, when the tires catch traction you will most likely go towards the wall. So steer in the direction that you want to go. In most cases you have no control over the car during a slide, but once the tires catch traction, be prepared to drive defensively to avoid objects. Be save.

Indiatlantic by the Sea, Fla.: Is it really true that if your car is skidding on ice, you should drive in the direction of the skid? This seems counterintuitive.

Steve Brown: When you are in a skid the old thought process was to steer in the direction of the skid. This has changed, because if you are skidding towards a wall, you do not want to steer towards the same wall. You want to go away from the wall, so steer in the direction that you want to go, when the tires catch traction, you will then have some control over the vehicle.

Fairfax, Va.: Hi Steve --

Do you know if chains are allowed in Northern Virginia for icy conditions? I have a sport hatchback with 17" wheels and 40 series tires that will get me nowhere in icy conditions.

Thanks. Kurt

Steve Brown: I believe that chains are allowed, but studs in the tires are not allowed. Be careful about using chains. They can be dangerous if not installed properly and if they come off during driving, they can cause damage to your vehicle and to others. I would recommend all-season tires with sandbags in the vehicle for added traction.

Washington, D.C.: Hi there. How often should a person have to replace windshield wipers, particularly after a crummy winter? I replaced mine this summer and they already seem like they need to be replaced again.

Steve Brown: It seems like wiper blades just don't last for very long. I would recommend having them changed in late fall and once during the winter months. The more you drive during bad winter, the more they will need to be checked for wear, tears, and lack of performance. If the blade is not cleaning your windshield under normal rainy conditions, then it is time to change them.

Freezing, Va.: Hi Steve,
This is kind of a vague question but I live in Loudoun County (Cascades, Sterling area) and am hoping that someone knows what I should be expecting as of the conditions I should wake up to tomorrow morning. I have a sports car and need to know if I should line up a ride to work or just write this off as another "Winter Storm" that doesn't come.

Steve Brown: All storm warnings should be taken seriously, because the weather forecasters want you to be prepared. No one can tell you what is going to exactly happen, because things can and has changed at the last minute. These warnings should give you time to prepare yourself and your surroundings. If you have a sports car that sits low to the ground then I would look for an alternate way of transportation. This could save you from getting stuck, damaging your car, and putting yourself at risk.

Arlington, Va.: As people winterize their cars, please let me point out that antifreeze IS DEADLY TO PETS! Animals are attracted to it because it tastes sweet to them, but will cause them to die a slow painful death, with symptoms sometimes unnoticed by owners until it's too late. As an animal welfare worker, I have seen this tragedy several times. Please do not drain your radiator and let it run into the street or along your driveway, etc., where pets and other animals, as well as children, can come in contact with it. Even if mixed with water, it is DEADLY! Please have a professional service do the work or responsibly dispose of your antifreeze. Thank you for letting me contribute.

Steve Brown: Thanks, I agree. Please use a professional service to service your coolant system or take the old coolant to your local repair facility for disposal. Note: Most counties have public disposal sites for antifreeze and oil. Contact your local government for more information.

Rockville, Md.: Steve: Exactly what are the weather forecasters predicting for the close in areas like Rockville? Do you think schools will cancel or just delay? What kind of advice do you give to people who have four-wheel drive vehicles who think they can do anything on ice?

Steve Brown: Most vehicles do not drive good on ice, not even SUVs or large trucks. They slide just as easy and in most cases they slide faster and farther because they are traveling at higher speeds. My advice to them is to slow down and live, if not for themselves for the other people's lives that they may come into contact with. Please slow down.

Washington, D.C.: OK, I'm a cliche just writing this, but I grew up in a cold-weather climate where they actually understand that you need to plow the snow when it falls. Why on earth do people in the mid-Atlantic not understand this, and does AAA communicate with public works departments to stress these points.

Sorry, but I'm just dreading' this winter!

Steve Brown: One of the major problems is money. All government agencies operate under a budget and most cannot budget for enough equipment to be properly prepared. Anyone that has lived in this area for several years know that we get several years of light weather and then one year of severe weather. Most agencies know this and consider this when budgeting for snow removal equipment.

Alexandria, Va.: What's the biggest mistake people make on the roads?

Steve Brown: Driving to fast for the conditions. People around our area are in a hurry most of the time and don't consider the weather conditions or want can happen to them.

D.C.: I've heard that it's good to put heavy objects in the trunk -- i.e., cinder blocks or big bottles of antifreeze or windshield wiper fluid -- to weigh it down for better traction. Is this a good idea or a myth?

Steve Brown: This is true of rear wheel drive vehicles. The added weight gives the vehicle added traction. Remember that antifreeze can freeze. I would suggest mixing antifreeze into a 60% antifreeze to 40% water or at the minimum a 50/50 mixture. This will provide addition weight and will give your an antifreeze mixture that you can add directly to the recover tank.

Washington, D.C.: I've heard that if I keep less than 1/4 tank full of gas, that my gas line might freeze? Is that true?

Steve Brown: Gasoline is this area usually has additives that keep it from freezing, but the water that collects in your tank from condensation will freeze and can block your lines and tank. I recommend putting a gas dyer additive in your tank several times during the winter months to remove the water and moisture from the tank.

Arlington, Va.: Do you recommend chains for tires?

Steve Brown: No I do not because they can be hard to install and can present a safety concern if they come off. I recommend buying an all-season tire for year round use for your vehicle.

washingtonpost.com: That was our last question today for Steve Brown of AAA Mid-Atlantic. Thanks so much to Steve, and to everyone who joined us. Drive safely.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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