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Boy, it’s cold outside, and the Capital Weather Gang is forecasting even more “punishing cold and wind” through Saturday, with a chance of a coat of snow tonight.
Unfortunately, the arctic temperatures can be especially hard on vehicles — and they are already taking a toll on thousands of drivers. Emergency road service calls for dead batteries are on the rise this week, according to the road service group AAA.
AAA Mid-Atlantic said that it responded to more than 19,000 calls for help on Tuesday and that nearly 50 percent of them were related to battery problems. On this freezing Wednesday, AAA has been dispatching more than 550 calls each hour; nearly 7,000 by noon, according to data from AAA Mid-Atlantic.
And the numbers could rise given that when the temperature hits zero, a car battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, tires lose pressure in the cold, and gas lines can freeze.
The number of calls over the 10-day year-end holiday travel period, more than 61,000, was 25 percent higher than in the previous year. More than 15,000 of those service calls were in Maryland, 10,746 in Virginia and nearly 2,000 in the District.
“The record number of people whose vehicles sat idle while they were away for the year-end holiday coupled with the bitter cold is a mixture that could result in thousands of calls,” said spokesman John Townsend. “Our rescue teams will get to everyone as quickly and safely as possible.”
As temperatures continue to drop, drivers should take every precaution, plan and prepare. AAA Mid-Atlantic offers this advice on how to keep your car up and running in this cold weather:
Park your car in the garage. If you do not have a garage, put a tarp over the hood or park protected from prevailing winds.
To keep doors from freezing shut, place a plastic trash bag between the door and the frame.
Keep the fuel tank at least half-full to avoid fuel-line freeze-up.
Check your battery strength. Faulty batteries cause more car-starting problems than any other factor. Your car’s battery loses its strength by 60 percent in extreme cold. If your battery is more than two years old, have it checked. Most batteries last three to five years.
Tires need more air pressure when it’s cold, and tires that are not properly inflated are more likely to suffer a flat or blowout. Check the tire pressure.
When starting a vehicle that has been outside, allow a short warm-up period before putting your vehicle in “Drive” to begin your trip. This allows fluids that have thickened because of the arctic temperatures to reach proper viscosity.
If power windows do not roll up or down when the button is pushed, they may be frozen. Do not continue to push the button, the window may break. To prevent windows and doors from freezing, use a lubricant on the seals.
If wiper blades are frozen to the windshield, do not turn the wipers on to free the blades. This can damage the motor that operates the wiper blades. Instead, use the vehicle’s defrost setting. Also, raise blades away from the windshield when the vehicle will be parked for any length of time.
If door locks are frozen, heat the key with a hair dryer. Do not put water on frozen door locks.
Use windshield washer fluid with a winter solvent that won’t freeze.
Make sure the engine coolant provides antifreeze protection down to the lowest temperatures you are likely to encounter; -30oF/-34oC is a good guideline.
Make sure your vehicle has an emergency kit, which should include the following: cellphone and charger, jumper cables, warm gear for all potential passengers — boots, hats, gloves — blankets, flares, flashlight and extra batteries, extra food and water for all potential passengers, general first aid kit, non-clumping kitty litter, ice scraper, snow brush and shovel, and windshield washer fluid.
Luz Lazo is a transportation reporter at The Washington Post covering passenger and freight transportation, buses, taxis and ride-sharing services. She also writes about traffic, road infrastructure and air travel in the Washington region and beyond. She joined The Post in 2011.