With winter now in full swing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released its latest guidelines aimed at keeping you and your family as safe as possible when on the road, regardless of how bad the weather may get. Not surprisingly, NHTSA's first bit of advice is to make sure that your vehicle is in top condition and that all required servicing and maintenance has been performed as recommended. With that critical opening step out of the way, it's time to start examining individual functional areas that can put a premature end to any journey.

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Power up

One of the most notorious potential cold-weather trip stoppers is your car's battery, and a quick once-over of its general condition can ensure quicker and easier startups as the temperatures drop. In addition to a visual inspection for any obvious damage, you should have a mechanic check the amount of cranking voltage it's capable of delivering and make sure that cable connections are tight and the alternator drive belt is properly tensioned. NHTSA also advises owners of range-extended electric vehicles to keep fresh gasoline in the tank.

Keep cool?

Cooling system woes can spell even bigger trouble when temperatures plummet well below the freezing mark. Beyond examining your vehicle's radiator and associated plumbing for leaks, NHTSA suggests this is an ideal time to flush aging coolant and replace it with a temperature-specific water/coolant mix per manufacturer recommendations. Regularly check to see that the proper fluid level is maintained.

See clearly

Maintaining good outward visibility for the driver is particularly critical in bad weather, cold or not. To that end, this is the time to ensure that your car's windshield wipers and washer system are in top condition. NHTSA recommends examining wiper blades for signs of excess wear and replacing them if necessary - and consider going to a heavy-duty alternative if you're in a locale that regularly gets slammed with extreme snow and ice conditions. Be sure to check the car's washer reservoir for cracks or leaks and always keep it filled with an appropriate "no-freeze" fluid. It's also wise to carry an extra bottle of fluid in the vehicle, just in case. Finally, don't forget to test the various defroster systems in your vehicle to make sure they're all operating properly.

Rubber, meet road

Like any other time of the year, proper tire maintenance is a paramount concern during the winter months. Beyond a close visual inspection for obvious signs of excessive wear or damage to the tread or sidewalls, be sure to regularly check your car's tires for correct inflation pressures - preferably with a gauge that you carry along in the vehicle. If you plan to switch over to snow tires do it now. For recommendations and ratings on specific snow tire choices, NHTSA suggests visiting its www.safercar.gov site.

Drive safe

While winter prepping a vehicle is important, NHTSA believes that winter prepping its driver plays an equally significant role in ensuring safe travel under challenging weather conditions. To that end, the agency recommends a number of common-sense approaches to the issue. The process starts with knowing both your car's and your own capabilities, particularly when it comes to ascertaining how slick surfaces will affect steering and braking responses and the need to slow down as circumstances dictate. NHTSA also stresses the need to prudently plan your travel times and routes in ways that minimize your potential exposure to unnecessary risks. Be extra vigilant against distractions of any sort and always wear your seat belt.

Be prepared

Last but far from least, NTHSA recommends knowing what to do if an unexpected problem arises when you are out on the road. For openers, always travel with a full tank of fuel and make items like blankets, jumper cables, flashlights and flares -- as well as emergency food and water -- part of your carry-along preparedness kit. The same goes for a cell phone and charger. And If you do end up stopped or stalled, stay with your vehicle. To check out the complete list of NHTSA safe winter driving tips, click here.

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