The winter driving season arrived this week, making this is a good time to make sure you and your vehicle are ready for what lies ahead. Experts say you should consider these things when preparing for winter driving:

Winter tires

Formerly called snow tires, winter tires are perhaps the most significant thing you can do for greater winter safety and mobility, but, correspondingly, the most expensive.

The thinnest layer of ice or snow can impair your ability to steer and — perhaps more important — stop. Winter tires give you more control. They have tread patterns that help on ice and snow, but the biggest difference is in materials that maintain grip in cold weather.

"Winter tires help keep you safe by providing better control for emergency maneuvers or even day-to-day incidents, shorter stopping distances," said T.J. Campbell, tire information manager at online retailer Tire Rack. "All your vehicle's safety systems — all-wheel drive, antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, lane departure and braking assist — they all work better when the tires have improved traction."

Most new vehicles come with tires labeled "all-season." That's optimistic. You can use them year-round, but their chemistry means they get stiffer and offer less grip below 40 degrees, when you're also most likely to encounter snow and ice.

Winter tires do the opposite. They wear out faster at temperatures above 40, though. That means you should remove them around St. Patrick's Day.

Buying an extra set of tires costs money, as does having them mounted and removed when the seasons change. But keep in mind that using winter tires three to four months a year extends the life of your other tires.

Regardless of which tires you use, check their tread. You can check tire tread easily with a coin, and many tires have a built-in tread indicator.

Vehicle prep

Here are some things to have taken care of before the weather gets bad.

  • Ice scraper: If you don't know where yours is, buy one today. Get a sturdy one that won't shatter on a cold day and is long enough to reach at least halfway across your windshield. This is not a place to scrimp.
  • Washer fluid: Keep yours full. You go through it faster dealing with ice, snow and slush, and your wipers struggle to clear them.
  • Wipers: Get new ones regularly. Consumer Reports says even the best become noticeably less effective in as little as six months. And protect your wipers. Tip them up off the windshield when parked and you expect precipitation, and never use them to remove accumulated ice or snow. That's why you have that good scraper.
  • Tire pressure: Check it. Low temperatures reduce air pressure as much as 1 psi for every 10 degrees. Choose one or two dates each month to check the pressure in all four tires.
  • Removing snow and ice: Clean it off your entire vehicle, not just the windows, but the roof, trunk, bumpers and especially lights. This improves your view of the road, makes it easier for other drivers to spot you and helps avoid being the schmuck whose car spews snow, covering the windshield of the vehicle behind you.
  • Put together a winter to-go bag. At a minimum, include jumper cables, flashlight, gloves, a hat and warm clothes. You only have to be stranded without them once to regret not preparing.
  • Lights: Check them. It gets dark earlier in winter, and winter weather conditions reduce visibility. Are all the bulbs working? Headlight lenses can get foggy over time, reducing what you can see. If you don't have daytime running lights, consider keeping your low beams on all the time.

Winter driving strategies

It's not just bridges and overpasses that get slippery in winter. The heat of tires can melt the snow and ice on them, leaving it to drip onto the apparently clear surface of the road. Watch for reflections that warn of black ice.

Four-wheel drive can help you get started and pull you through mounds of snow, but it won't help you slow down on ice. That 4x4 SUV rocketing past you on a slippery surface is a good candidate to be in the ditch around the next curve.

Remember that even if you and your vehicle are perfectly prepared, not everybody else will be. Give other drivers a bit more space and time.