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Drive safely: Avoid joining ranks of stranded

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
Prepare your vehicle for the cold and use extra caution in inclement weather.
Prepare your vehicle for the cold and use extra caution in inclement weather.
  • AAA expects to help 1.4 million stranded travelers over the holidays
  • Checking batteries, fluids and car systems before you go can head off problems
  • Use extra caution and winter driving techniques to avoid accidents in ice and snow

(CNN) -- You've got enough to do over the holidays. Don't spend hours sitting on the side of the road with car trouble.

AAA auto club expects to help 1.4 million stranded drivers over Christmas and New Year's, from Saturday through January 2.

Among the problems anticipated: some 320,000 dead batteries, 175,000 flat tires and 60,000 cars stuck in snow or mud. Nearly half a million drivers are expected to have problems that require a tow.

"Whether on your way to grandma's house or the mall for last-minute shopping, car trouble can quickly dampen your holiday spirit," Marshall L. Doney, AAA Automotive vice president, said in a statement.

A bit of preventive maintenance and some driving savvy in inclement weather can help save you an unexpected delay.

Preventing a breakdown

Antifreeze should be checked every year to make sure it will protect against freezing, AAA says. Motorists should also maintain tire pressure according to the vehicle manufacturer's recommendation, not the number stamped on the tires, the motor club advises.

Cold weather can reduce tire inflation and put more strain on batteries, so making sure everything is in good shape is key to guarding against car trouble.

Also inspect belts and hoses, lights, windshield wipers and fluid levels before hitting the road. And if you've been having any trouble with braking, the exhaust system or the heater, have those assessed before your trip, AAA recommends.

Snow and ice preparation

It's a good idea to pack some things that could get you out of a snowdrift this time of year.

AAA recommends a winter driving kit made up of the following: a bag of abrasive material (sand, salt or cat litter), a snow shovel and brush, traction mats, an ice scraper, booster cables, a flashlight, window washing liquid, cloth, warning flares or triangles, a cell phone, gloves and a blanket.

If you do get stuck, you can contact AAA via phone, iPhone app or at

Driving in wintry weather

Some holiday travelers are bound to encounter snow and ice en route to the festivities. If you have to drive in conditions with low visibility, go slowly with your headlights on low beam, AAA advises. Allow at least double the usual following distance between cars.

Never use cruise control on a slick surface. Steering around an obstruction is often safer than braking suddenly at speeds above 25 mph on a slippery surface, according to AAA's pamphlet (PDF) "How to Go on Ice and Snow."

When you do brake, don't remove your foot from the brake or pump the pedal if you have antilock brakes, AAA advises. Drivers of cars that don't have antilock brakes should keep their heel on the floor and apply firm pressure to the brake pedal to the threshold of locking.

In case of skidding, steer in the direction you want the front of the car to go, keeping your eyes on your travel path. And don't slam on the brakes; you're likely to make it harder to get back in control.