OSCEOLA COUNTY — It’s starting to look a little more wintery outside.

It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas. Not a lot. Not just yet.

But veteran Michiganders in this part of the state know a more serious winter is coming, and weather professionals are predicting that when winter weather finally hits, it’s going to hit hard and furious.

With Christmas just around the corner, and many folks planning to hit the roads for holiday visits, Osceola County Sheriff Jim Crawford is urging people to drive smart, and drive carefully.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) citing traffic accidents as the leading cause of death during winter storms, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is reminding travelers that despite adverse conditions, many accidents can be avoided.

“What a lot of people need to understand is that a high percentage of traffic fatalities are a result of poor decision-making,” said Crawford.

“In bad weather, it may come down to something as simple as postponing travel for a day.”

In 2008 more than 11,000 Michigan accidents were alcohol related.

Despite statistics showing that seat belt usage in the U.S. has increased over the years with about four out of every five travelers now buckling up, there is still room for improvement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if all drivers and passengers wore seatbelts, approximately 8,000 lives a year would be spared nationwide.

With the arrival of winter weather Crawford suggests the following safety tips for safe travel:

Winter Driving Tips

• Check your tires, engine oil, antifreeze, and brakes before embarking on a trip.

• Buckle up, and make sure your passengers do too.

• Reduce speed in snow, sleet, and rain.

• Allow yourself plenty of braking space in wet weather.

• Lightly pump your brakes on wet roads when slowing the vehicle.

• Never venture down unplowed roads.

• Avoid distractions such as talking on your cell phone or eating.

• Keep headlights on and use low beams in fog.

• Listen to the radio for information on local road and weather conditions.

• Pull off the road if you’re tired or if outside conditions worsen.

Things to include in your vehicle during winter driving

• Map of the area where you’re traveling

• Water

• Flashlight (with extra batteries)

• Candle (for heat and light)

• Snow brush and ice-scraper

•  Package of cat litter (for tire traction)

• Spare tire

• Small shovel

• Hats, weather proof gloves and boots, and a heavy blanket

• Matches and flares

• Cell phone (for emergency use only)

“If you do have to brave the elements then watch your speed,” Crawford pointed out. “Don’t try to drive too far if you’re tired, and make sure your vehicle is equipped with the necessary equipment for the conditions.

“Most importantly, always wear safety belts and never get behind the wheel after having too much to drink.”