We just finished an unusual autumn, with early snow in the Midwest and late warm temperatures in the East. But with winter now officially upon us, drivers across the U.S. need to think about how cold weather – along with icy roads and holiday traffic – affects driving conditions. Here are some tips to prepare for the weather, protect yourself and prevent accidents.

Check your car

Check tire pressure. For every 10 degree Fahrenheit drop, tire pressure falls about 1 psi. Under-inflation increases wear on your tires and reduces fuel economy by increasing the tires' contact with the road. Keep a tire pressure gauge in your car and make sure tires are properly inflated for safety and efficiency. Check the car's owner's manual for the proper pressure.

Make sure your windshield wipers work. Consider installing new blades if they're more than a year old and make sure they fit your windshield well. Only clean blades that fit the size and curve of your car's windshield can properly wipe away precipitation.

Top off fluids. Make sure all the fluid compartments are full, including antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid. You can make a non-toxic, no-freeze windshield wiper fluid by combining 8 ounces of 99% isopropyl alcohol with about 1 ounce of liquid castile soap.

Check your emergency supplies. During winter, you want to make sure you have an ice scraper, a small shovel and kitty litter for dealing with ice and snow. Also keep a cellphone with you, as well as food, water and a blanket in case of a long trip or breakdown. For any time of year, but especially in winter, make sure you have a flashlight, flares, a spare tire, tools for changing a tire and jumper cables. Just be careful you don't weigh your car down too much; extra weight decreases gas mileage.

Practice safe driving

Avoid ice on the road. Cars react differently to driving in snow and ice than driving in dry conditions. It takes longer to stop on ice and water-covered ice than on dry land. Leave more distance between you and the car in front of you.

Brake the right way. The kind of brakes you have makes a difference in how you operate in slippery conditions. If you have antilock brakes (ABS), firmly press on your brakes. If you have non-antilock brakes, pump your brakes by keeping your heel on the floor so you can better control the pressure. You want to make sure you don't lock the brakes by pushing too far.

Accelerate and decelerate slowly. In snow and ice, starting and stopping quickly can cause skidding. Take your time when approaching or leaving stoplights.

Plan ahead

Name a designated driver. If you're going to holiday parties, always decide beforehand who will be the designated driver.

Get plenty of rest. Get a good night's sleep before your road trip. Alternate drivers so no one person has to stay alert the whole time.

Plan rest stops. Look for safe stops along the way where you can stretch and rest.

Check the forecast. If there's a bad storm expected, delay your trip or plan to arrive before the storm crosses your path or hits your destination.

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