How to Avoid a Winter Car Breakdown

A dead battery, a flat tire, a stalled engine… on a frigid and stormy night, these are every driver’s worst fear. It’s bad enough that shoveling our cars out of snow piles is a daily occurrence during the winter. When real car trouble strikes, however, it can be extremely dangerous. There’s nothing worse than car trouble, and during the coldest months of the year, it’s all too common.

road coated by snow

How to Avoid a Winter Car Breakdown

From what to do if your car breaks down, to how to stay warm when your battery dies or you go off the road, we are sharing the top causes for winter breakdowns, our tips for avoiding them, and what to do if a breakdown is unavoidable.

Top Causes for Winter Car Breakdowns:

A dead battery

Did you know that it’s more difficult for a car battery to produce a charge during the colder winter months? This means that when you turn the key, it might not produce enough energy to start your car. That’s a scary thought.

Don’t get caught in the cold with a dead battery – use our tips to avoid this winter weather catastrophe.
  • Check your car battery voltage with a voltmeter or multimeter before it gets too cold. You can also ask your mechanic to take a look when you bring your car into the shop to get winterized. What voltage should you look for? Roughly 12.40–12.75 volts is enough to ensure reliable startups in cold weather.
  • If you live in a particularly frigid place, consider investing in a battery rated for cold temperatures. When shopping for a cold-weather battery, look for one with a high CCA (cold cranking amps) count. CCA count is a measure of how many amps the battery can generate in cold or freezing temperatures.

Bald or flat tires

Your tires are your contact with the road, so it’s important to keep them properly maintained for driving in wintery conditions – especially when roadways are slick and icy. Fresh tire treads help channel snow and water away and grip the road, and proper tire pressure helps your car dig into loose or slushy surfaces (like a road covered in a fresh layer of snow!). Without properly maintained tires, your car may have trouble staying on the road or coming to a stop when you hit the brakes. Yikes.

Here are our tips to keeping your tires properly maintained throughout the entire winter season:
  • Be sure to check your tires before winter weather hits, and continue doing so regularly after the temperatures drop. Did you know that the air pressure in your tires can drop 2 PSI for every 10 degrees the outdoor air temperature decreases? Therefore, it’s important that they stay properly inflated during the entire winter season. We suggest using a gas station air pump to check your tires at every other fill-up during the winter.
    Pro tip: the recommended PSI for your tires is usually printed on a sticker on the inside of the drivers-side door.
  • Bald tires and slick roads are a recipe for disaster. It’s crucial to make sure the tread isn’t worn down on your tires during the winter. To check your tread depth, try the Lincoln test: stick a penny into the center of the tread with Lincoln’s head pointed in. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, the tread depth is too low and your tires need to be replaced ASAP.
    Pro tip: spring for some dedicated snow tires if you live in a place with severe weather.

Engine issues

If, on a particularly freezing morning, you turn the key in the ignition and you hear a squealing noise akin to cats fighting and see steam pouring out of the hood – there’s a good chance that your radiator has either frozen or cracked. In cold weather, your engine can also overheat (yes, you read that right!). This is due to the motor oil becoming thicker and not circulating properly throughout the engine.

Here are our pro tips for avoiding engine problems in the coldest months of the year:
  • Park indoors whenever possible. Parking indoors will help prevent fluids in your engine from constantly vacillating between freezing and expanding. Be sure to also check your car’s coolant concentration before winter hits (hey, it’s called antifreeze for a reason!). Your mechanic should have it on their pre-winter checklist to make sure the fluid proportions are correct to keep them from freezing.
    Pro tip: a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water should be sufficient.
  • Try swapping out a standard oil for multi-viscosity motor oil, which will perform better in all weather conditions. Ask your mechanic or contact your vehicle manufacturer’s customer service line to find out if you should do a winter oil change – they may recommend switching to thinner, less viscous oil that’s rated higher for colder temperatures.

If You Can’t Avoid A Winter Car Breakdown… Do This

Sometimes a breakdown in winter is unavoidable. Don’t panic.

Here’s what to do in the event of a winter car breakdown:

  1. Stay with your vehicle:

    Whatever you do, stay with (and inside) your vehicle. Exposing yourself to subzero temperatures and extreme weather is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

  2. Stay warm:

    Do everything in your power to stay warm by running the heat, layering in warm clothing, and staying inside the vehicle. Your car will provide the best protection and keep you warm and dry until help comes.

  3. Stash water and snacks in your car:

    In the winter, keep extra bottles of water and snacks in your car in case of breakdown. Depending on your location or the severity of the weather, it may be hours before assistance can reach you.

  4. Call Metromile Roadside Assistance:

    Have Metromile insurance with added roadside assistance? Then call for help using the Metromile app, phone or your online dashboard. If you don’t, call for whatever help you can.

  5. Have an emergency roadside kit ready to go in your trunk:

    This includes a snow scraper brush, small shovel, road flares, blanket, warm clothing, hand warmers, a small bag of sand, etc. At the very least, these items will be enough to alert other drivers of your presence and make it easier for assistance to find you in the storm.

What not to do:

  1. Do not leave your vehicle:

    Whatever you do, do not rush out of your vehicle or try to dig your car free of a snow bank. Doing so exposes you to the cold and elements, and it will be much harder to warm your body back up.

  2. Do not fall asleep:

    In some circumstances, you may be waiting hours for help to come and it might be tempting to doze off. Do everything you can to stay awake. If you’re trapped inside your car with the engine running, you may be susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning. Falling asleep during carbon monoxide exposure is extremely dangerous and can lead to instant death.

Still Have Questions?

Still have questions? Reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram or visit the help center. Not a part of the Metromile fam yet? Grab a free quote now and see how much you could be saving each month. Metromile customers save an average of $611 a year! Current Metromile customers: refer a friend to Metromile and get $25! Be safe this winter and see you on the roads.