Winter’s No Picnic, Especially When You Have No Windshield Washer Fluid [Op/Ed]

It’s that time of year again. That time when the roads get slick and your car becomes caked in mag chloride and ice. If you’ve ever run out of windshield wiper fluid in the winter, you’ll immediately understand how critical windshield washer fluid is. Especially when your already stressful drive home from work turns into a trip of terror.  Suddenly, that commute becomes a death race to find what may as well be the elixir of life.

It happened to me last year in a black Toyota Land Cruiser driving down I-70 in Colorado at night. As I passed a semi-truck, it coated my windshield with enough snow and muck to turn the Toyota into a rolling igloo. I went for the wipers and all they did was smear the grime across the entire windshield. So naturally, I went to clear it off. And you guessed it…when I hit the stalk, nothing happened. I had run out with absolutely no warning.

Now I was driving blind down the steepest grade of I-70, just west of Georgetown. In this section, there’s no safe place to stop, and I couldn’t see out the windshield. After what seemed like an eternity of white-knuckled terror, I pulled into a gas station in Georgetown. Only, surprise! They had run out of windshield washer fluid. It seems I wasn’t the only driver who needed the life-saving liquid on a frigid, murky Colorado night.

Obviously, I made it through that night alive, but the experience got me thinking. Why don’t more cars come with a windshield wiper fluid dip stick? It seems like such an easy and fundamental fix to a problem that many of we winter types face at least once each year.

Windshield washer fluid
Some modern cars inform the driver when their windshield washer fluid is low. But how do you tell if your car doesn’t have that feature?

Some modern cars actually do inform the driver when their washer fluid is low. But not all drivers are so fortunate. For some, the only way to know how much fluid they actually have is to check it manually. The problem, of course, is that while most washer fluid reservoirs are made of a semi-transparent plastic, they are buried so far and deep in your car’s engine compartment as to render their transparency pointless. That means most of us have no clue how much of the precious fluid is on hand at a given moment.

Once upon a time, cars had plastic bags or clear plastic containers. Those containers were mounted to the side of the engine compartment. They were easy to see and easy to fill. However, with modern engine bays stuffed to the brim with electronics, engineers have banished the fluid reservoir deep inside the bowels of the car. In some cases, automakers make windshield wiper fluid reservoirs the most secretive and hidden part of your car. At least it feels that way when you need to see how much windshield washer fluid you have. Good luck pouring the fluid into the car, let alone seeing how much is still left in the reservoir.

Sure, a windshield washer fluid dipsticks might be tricky to design since the fluid isn’t dark or sticky like oil. But if Volvo can engineer an electrified, supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, I’m sure the Scandinavian engineers can work this issue out. They want to make their cars as safe as humanly possible. How about a way to keep us from almost dying on a cold and murky Colorado night, when you’re ready to sell your first born for a gallon of blue alcohol-laced water?

Come on ladies and gents. If you can festoon badges all over your new cars, you can give us means to tackle this age-old problem. And if your car has a dipstick or tells you when you’re fluid’s low, let this serve as a TFLcar PSA to top off your fluid. Or you, much like me, could be in for a night of blind, wintry terror.