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Kitty litter not for traction

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Question: Please advise your readers. Winter is here, and I've heard this "advice" again: Carry kitty litter in your car as a traction aid. I assume the idiot giving this advice doesn't live in the North, like I do. With a brief perusal of the contents of a bag of kitty litter, one discovers that it is basically clay. What happens to clay when it gets wet (like between the tire and the ice on the road)? It turns to mud. Very slippery mud. I tried kitty litter exactly once as a traction aid, and it only made things worse. — Don

Tom: Yes, and there's also the problem of shooing away all those cats that gather around your spinning tire in anticipation.

Ray: Kitty litter is basically clay, and it does turn to mud when it gets wet. It might provide very-short-term traction. But if it doesn't work right away, the friction from the spinning tire will heat up the surrounding snow and will turn the whole concoction into a slippery mud bath.

Tom: So you're much better off carrying sand as a traction aid. Plus, it's a lot cheaper. Some communities even give it away for free in the winter.

Ray: And if yours doesn't, you can always make a covert, midnight raid on a sandy area.

Question: I'm 74 years old and have a 1998 Mercury Marquis that will probably be my last car, so I would like to keep it looking nice. I run it through the local car wash at least once a month, and it has a feature where wax is applied to the surface of the car as you drive through. When it rains, the water always forms large beads, as though it has been hand waxed. Is this enough to protect the finish, or should I have it hand waxed regularly? — Wally

Ray: The other day, my brother went into a place that advertised waxing. But he fled in horror after they asked him what kind of bathing suit he was planning to wear and if he wanted his back done, too.

Tom: You're in good shape, Wally. If you can see water beading on the hood, then you've got wax on the car. And you're right that it will help maintain your car's appearance.

Ray: Generally speaking, the spray-on waxes you get at the car wash don't last as long as the better waxes that you apply by hand. But in your case, since you get your car done once a month or more, that shouldn't be an issue.

Tom: Just watch for the beading water. As long as you see those nice, large beads, you're all set.

Ray: And don't be so pessimistic about the future, Wally. I have a feeling you're going to be looking at those 2015 Cadillacs.

Question: Following the advice of my mechanic, I recently refused to give someone a jump-start for fear of racking up another $250 bill for a new alternator. Was I a bad Samaritan, or was I justified in leaving this guy stranded? — John

Ray: Well, many manufacturers now recommend against giving or receiving a jump-start. And at the garage, when possible, we "trickle charge" batteries — charge them slowly over many hours — instead of jumping them with a large surge of current.

Tom: I guess the theory is that when you give a jump-start, you use your charging system to charge two batteries (yours and the jump-startee's), and that can place too great a demand on your alternator and can overheat it.

Ray: And the reason they recommend against receiving a jump-start is that it's possible to fry the delicate electronics in today's cars with a voltage surge. And if you think ruining an alternator is bad, you should try cooking a thousand-dollar computer!

Tom: In reality, however, this stuff is extremely rare. I can count on one hand the number of times we've seen problems due to jump-starts in the garage in the past 25 years. And most of those occurred when some knucklehead mixed up the positive and negative cables. So it's a risk, but, in my experience, it's a very low risk.

Ray: And personally, I don't let it interfere with my Samaritan-ness. If I see someone who needs help, and I can help them, I don't think about my alternator. And I hope other people would do the same for me.

Tom: What about me? Would you stop to help me if my battery was dead?

Ray: Sorry, I'd love to, but I just had a new alternator put in.


The Magliozzi brothers' radio show, "Car Talk," can be heard Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Sundays at noon on KUER FM 90.1, and on KCPW 88.3/105.1 FM Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. If you have a question about cars, write to Click and Clack Talk Cars c/o King Features Syndicate, 235 East 45th St., New York, NY 10017. You can e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk section of the Web site www.cars.com.