Dec 012004
Authors: Lila Hickey

Sunday's snowstorm heralded the beginning of true winter weather.

The coating of ice and snow on city and campus streets that came with the storm makes driving and vehicle maintenance a concern for students, staff and faculty who drive to campus.

Many cities, including Fort Collins, have to declare "accident alert" status during winter months, said Fort Collins Police Services Crime Analyst Lori Frank. Accident alerts are issued when the number of automotive accidents rises drastically, so police are either unable to respond to all calls or are forced to use all department resources on accidents.

"You see a lot of single-car accidents. You see a lot of rear-end accidents," Frank said. "Obviously, that happens when you see snowy, slick roads."

Kristin LeLoup, supervisor of the CSU Police Department's Traffic Education and Enforcement program, agreed.

"In our TEEP tickets, since the snow has come, we've already had three tickets that have been because of accidents," LeLoup said. "There's definitely an increase (in accidents) when the snow comes."

Although there are more accidents during winter months, they tend to be less serious, said Sgt. Russ Reed of the FCPS traffic unit.

"The speeds are lower when the roads are slick, and greater when the roads are clear, and speed affects seriousness of the crash," he said.

Most winter crashes occur because drivers do not adjust their speed to account for the loss of traction caused by snow and ice on road surfaces, Reed said.

"Driving too fast for conditions – that's probably the A-1 reason," he said, adding that drivers can reduce the likelihood of crashes by driving more slowly and increasing the distance between cars.

"(Drivers should) slow down and maintain distance," he said. "Triple or quadruple their distance, really. They have an increased stopping distance because of the slick surface."

Disregarding the change in road conditions can leave drivers at a mechanic's shop with dents in their car and their wallet.

"I've had customers bring their car in because they slid into a curb," said Diana Schnabel, owner of Tim Quality Auto, 1713 Willox Lane. "I've seen (costs) from no money to $1,500 later."

Often, Schnabel said, the dangers of slick roads are made worse by worn tire tread, which makes braking more difficult and accidental slides more likely.

Fox said drivers can check tires by looking at tread bars, also called wear indicators, on the tire's sides or by taking the car to a tire shop.

He also said that wear indicators appear when the tires wear out.

"If the tread bars are showing, you probably need to get (the tire) replaced," Fox said.

Tread bars become visible when the tread wears to the last allowable 1/16 of an inch, as mandated by law, according to AAA's Web site,

Another issue with winter vehicle maintenance is replacing coolant fluid regularly, said James Gresham, the manager of Checker Auto Parts, 1006 N. College Ave.

"If don't have the correct amount of antifreeze, or it's old, you will freeze your system and crack a(n) (engine) block or pop a freeze plug," he said. "This time of year it's quite common. People are coming in for a new engine or heater core."

Cracking the engine block is a serious problem, one that requires an entirely new engine, Gresham said.

"When the antifreeze is not good to, say, 30 degrees below zero, and it gets really cold, that water in the radiator, which is also in the engine block, freezes, and it expands the engine," Schnabel said.

Schnabel and Gresham both recommend drivers have their coolant systems cleaned and refilled with fresh antifreeze.

Gresham also suggested putting true windshield wiper fluid in the windshield wiper reservoir, instead of water, to avoid freezing and cracking in the wiper system as well.

Battery problems are also common during the winter months, Gresham said, since the severe cold means batteries must work harder to start the vehicle.

"It just takes more to crank your engine over when it's cold," he said. "If you have a weak battery, the cells tend to blow out."

Josh Glass, parts sales manager of Fort Collins Autozone, 1180 N. College Ave., suggested drivers check their windshield wiper blades, consider replacing their regular oil with specialized, winter-weight quality and check engine belts, which are more likely to break in cold weather.

Another winter problem is under-panel corrosion caused by the magnesium chloride used to de-ice streets after snowstorms, Schnabel said.

"It gets so corrosive, and it just eats through everything," she said. "We've gotten into some vehicles where we've seen the corrosiveness. It can be a nightmare."

Schnabel recommended that drivers try to wash their car after driving on de-iced roads to reduce vehicle damage.

Gresham said people can have the bottoms of their cars coated with a protective substance, but he said even that would gradually wear away.

Schnabel said the single most important issue involved in winter maintenance is paying attention to warning lights, suspicious noises and other potential problems.

"Always watch the gauges," she said. "If you have any lights that are coming on – especially oil level light – have that checked."

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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