No matter where you’re from or what conditions you’ve learned to cope with while driving, snow and ice command a healthy dose of respect. Signs saying “don’t text and drive” can be found everywhere these days, but hints as to how to safely navigate adverse weather conditions are seldom found, and they should warrant more than the occasional sound bite on the news.
A general disclaimer before we deliver some practical winter driving advice: If there are any signs of ice accumulating on the roadways, or a significant accumulation of snow has fallen, DO NOT DRIVE. Ice is truly treacherous, and no amount of experience can completely remove the danger it poses. Also, heavy snow conditions can render a car (or even a AAA rescue toe truck) stranded. Running low on coffee or missing the last day of a sale at your favorite store is NOT worth your life (and if you’re running low on coffee, that’s your own fault for not keeping an emergency backup supply on hand).
If you have no choice but to venture out into ice and snow, here are 7 winter driving tips to help you arrive at your destination safely.
1) Make Sure Your Vehicle is Prepared for Winter Weather Before It Arrives
- Check the tread depth on your tires. If it is too low, get a new set (this applies year-round).
- If your geography necessitates snow tires, have them ready and put them on before the first storm comes in.
- Check your battery, antifreeze, and washer fluid levels.
- Keep extra fluids and light bulbs, a jump starter, cell phone battery chargers, and an emergency cold weather survival kit in the trunk.
- Lastly, always keep your gas tank more than half full.
2) Drive Slowly and Deliberately
Your ability to maximize traction on a slick surface is a matter of physics and no amount of experience will change that. This tip is especially important for rear-wheel-drive vehicles, as the difference in vehicle handling on ice and snow is very pronounced over handling in dry conditions.
3) Allow Extra Time for Stopping
This means your typical “2 car lengths” safe driving distance is not enough, even when driving slowly.
4) Steer Into a Skid and Use Your Accelerator
No matter how many years I spent in the Northeast, this never felt like an intuitive reaction, but eventually became reflex, and it’s saved me many times. The idea is to apply power in concert with the momentum of your car in order to restore some traction and control (it’s a “go-with-the-flow” mentality). As you begin to regain control, slowly steer in a safer direction, pull over to a safe spot, and take a deep breath.
5) Do Not Power Up Hills
Instead, go slowly and use a low gear. Sure, this might be contrary to what your instincts tell you, but it’s the right move.
6) Practice Winter Weather Driving Whenever Possible
This includes getting to know how your vehicle, as well as other types of vehicles, handle when conditions get downright lousy. Find a large, empty parking lot and try out all of the maneuvers you hope you’ll never have to use out on the road.
Try fast acceleration, quick stops, and improper skid maneuvers so you know why they should be avoided. Practice evasive maneuvers, and slam on your breaks so that you get to know how your vehicle deals with situations. ABS brakes are great, but they do take some getting used to if you learned how to drive on an older car.
Also, we recommend checking with any city, county, or state transportation agencies in your area for available winter weather defensive driving classes. Or, if you’re interested, the folks at Bridgestone Tires have a reputable Winter Driving School you can attend.
7) Pack Cold Weather Survival and Emergency Supplies in Your Car
While this is by no means a complete list, gather up all these items in your car as a cold weather roadway emergency kit:
- Thermal clothing, extra dry clothing, and blankets
- High visibility items such as reflective tape, glow sticks, and flares
- Cell phone chargers
- High-energy food (such as Power Bars) and water. Keep them in an insulated bag in the back seat, as opposed to the trunk, in order to keep them from freezing.
- Maps as you may be in an area without a cellphone signal
- Whistles in order to alert people as to your location
- Spare medication
- A first aid kit
- Single use heat packs (lots of them)
- An extra toy (or three) for your children to keep their spirits up as you sort out a solution
Adverse winter driving conditions need to be taken seriously. Too often, we fall back on routine and become lax, but when you set out to drive on ice or snow, you should always treat it as if you know you something will go wrong. Speaking from experience, no matter how confident you feel venturing out, winter weather has a way of humbling even the most experienced of drivers!