23 Winter Driving Tips They Don’t Tell You About
By Mi Ae Lipe
Like most Americans, I travel every Thanksgiving to see my family, but I do something crazy—I drive 4,000 miles from Seattle to Wisconsin and back—alone. This year was no exception.
Over the years, I have passed a lot of vehicles (and emergency personnel trying to help them) that have spun out into ditches, off freeway ramps, and into center medians. A distressing number of these were large pickup trucks and SUVs pulling trailers. Considering that humans excel at underestimating risk and being overconfident, it doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out what happened.
At this time of the year, many traffic safety and automobile organizations put out winter driving tips. They recommend getting your vehicle in tip-top mechanical order; keeping emergency food, water, blankets in case you get stranded; and driving more slowly and not braking suddenly. While this is sound advice, many aspects to safe winter driving are never mentioned. In this article, I’ll cover these, as well as expound on oft-told ones, but from a different perspective.
1. Be antisocial. One of the biggest problems in America is that drivers don’t leave sufficient following distances in any kind of weather. Even on largely empty interstate roads, motorists frequently bunch up and trail only a couple of seconds behind other vehicles at 75 mph (113 km/h). In the winter, tightly packed caravans of six or seven vehicles—semi tractor-trailers, cars, SUVs, campers—often form with scarcely a second’s worth of distance between them. All it takes is a single driver tapping their brakes or hitting an icy patch for a pileup to happen. Your best defense is be downright antisocial—distancing yourself from others as much as possible and always planning an escape route are your best insurance in case you or someone else starts suddenly sliding, braking, or going out of control.
2. Be hyperaware of road feel. To drive safely on snow and especially ice, one needs to be fully alert to how their vehicle feels on the road surface at any given moment. The slightest changes—a sudden floatiness in steering, a tiny sideways shift of a rear tire transmitted through seat vibrations to your butt, a minor rasping noise—often signal a changing condition that requires reducing speed or making another immediate adjustment. Don’t let distractions like talking to passengers or having music on too loud get in the way of this situational awareness.
3. Don’t get overconfident just because you have AWD and ABS. State patrol and emergency personnel always say that the first vehicles to go off the road are SUVs and pickups with all-wheel or four-wheel drive. In many years of driving in winter conditions, I’d have to concur. Having power to all four wheels may help you get traction in certain situations, but it will not help you stop, and it certainly won’t save you from stupid driving. Antilock brakes (ABS) can go a long way in helping you stop sooner and maintaining control, but again don’t rely on it. Use common sense.
4. What really to do in a skid. The best way to handle a skid is, of course, not to get into one in the first place through a combination of proper space management, minimal braking and steering, and no sudden moves. But if you do get into one, what should you do? There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) about the subject, and it gets complicated because it’s often highly contextual depending on what caused the skid in the first place, the type of vehicle, and its drive technology. And in a panic situation, everything usually flies out of the mind in a flash. The most important things to remember? Look into the empty space you want to go and steer gently into that direction. Don’t overdo the steering correction, avoid braking hard, and very lightly press the accelerator to redistribute the car’s weight to gain traction. It’s really that simple.
5. Don’t freak out. Driving in snow and ice means that your vehicle will not behave the same way it does on dry pavement. No matter how carefully you make a turn, the back end may slide out a little. Your vehicle will wallow a bit when plowing through deeper snow or shimmy sideways in icy ruts. And you may experience considerable oversteer or understeer at times. You also may not stop as quickly as you think you’re going to. It’s important to remember that this is completely normal in winter conditions. Keeping calm, having your wits about you, anticipating these sensations, and gently correcting them as needed with very small inputs will go a long way to making you a safer, less stressed-out winter driver.
6. Practice deep breathing and relaxation methods. When we drive in hazardous situations, lots of nervous tension can build up, sometimes without our even realizing it. Often we start breathing in a shallow fashion, or worse yet we hold our breath and tighten our muscles. When this happens, our adrenalin surges and our brains are deprived of much-needed oxygen for thinking clearly. It’s important to recognize these signs of tension and deliberately relax, whether by deep breathing, mindfully exhaling, listening to soothing music, or even singing (see my Driving in the Real World blog post for more on this).
7. Be aware of fatigue. Bad winter conditions take huge tolls on a driver’s attention and energy. On longer road trips, many drivers underestimate the exhaustion that can set in after hours of sustained focus and tension. This can cause a person to make mistakes or misjudge a potential situation. Take frequent breaks or stop early for the night if necessary.
8. Avoid a bad situation in the first place. The best way to avoid getting into an accident in bad winter weather is simply to not go out if possible, or take public transit. Even if you can drive well in snow and ice, it doesn’t mean others can. Increase your safety odds by staying home or waiting until the worst of the storm has passed and roads have been plowed. And if mountain passes require tire chains even for AWD or 4WD vehicles, seriously question whether it’s wise to be out at all in such conditions.
9. In an emergency, minimize the time spent out of your vehicle. One of the biggest tragedies is people getting injured, killed, disoriented, or lost when they step out of their vehicles during winter emergencies. In huge multicar pileups last year on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, numerous people got out to help other motorists, inspect damage, or take pictures; at least one person was struck and killed by another vehicle. In the case of the Wisconsin pileup, stunning video footage shows people running out of the way with vehicles swerving to avoid them. And an Illinois groom died on his wedding night when he stopped to help a woman who’d slid off a snowy road. Both he and the woman were killed when they were struck by not one but three cars whose drivers simply did not see them. State patrol advise that if you’re stranded or see someone in trouble, it’s best to stay in your vehicle and call for help. Frequently at collision or emergency scenes, motorists experience what’s known as “target fixation”; by staring at people or disabled vehicles too long, such drivers may unwittingly head right for them. After all, you tend to steer in the direction you’re looking. And in the case of blinding snowstorms, people walking to seek help can become quickly disoriented and frostbitten. Always stay in your car for your safety and so that emergency personnel can locate you easier.
10. Turn on your flashers to warn others of sudden slowdowns. Briefly turning on your emergency flashers to alert drivers behind you of a sudden slowdown or problem up ahead can help provide valuable warning time. This is actually a tactic used frequently in Europe but seldom seen in the United States. Every little bit helps, especially if motorists behind you are going too fast for conditions or visibility is poor.
11. Control your speed. It is almost always mentioned in winter driving tips to reduce your speeds in snowy and icy conditions. This excellent advice goes deeper than that. One can actually travel quite fast safely in a straight line on ice and snow and be fine—as long as you don’t have to stop or turn. It’s awfully hard to beat physics and American motorists are especially poor at driving appropriately for conditions (this video footage shows how a 40-car pileup in Wisconsin started precisely because motorists were going too fast). In bad weather, always go more slowly than you think is necessary, maintain the maximum distance between you and other vehicles, and keep your eyes up as far ahead as possible to anticipate hazards.
12. Don’t travel at night. It can be very dangerous to travel in darkness in bad winter weather. You can’t see ice or changing road surfaces as well; falling snow can be disorienting blowing into headlights; lane markings or even where the edges of the road lie can be impossible to discern without other visual cues. And while dense fog and blowing snow can be extremely treacherous during the day, they’re even more so at night. We are also biologically programmed to become more fatigued as darkness falls, further hindering our judgment. In these cases, better to be safe than sorry—and wait until daylight.
13. Coping with extreme temperatures. Single-digit and below-zero temps call for special tactics:
• Use windshield washer fluid rated for temperatures of –30; this will help keep the fluid from freezing in your reservoir tank, in the wiper nozzles, and on your windshield. Prestone makes a good formula that’s a combination de-icer, washer, and dirt repellant.
• When filling up your vehicle, don’t leave the gas pump unattended to run inside the convenience station; below-zero temps can cause the automatic shut-off pumps to jam—and gasoline spurting out all over the place.
• Always keep gloves and extra clothing in the car; a sleeping bag rated for negative temps that can be stored compactly in a compression sack is also a good idea in case you get stranded.
• Keep your gas tank at least half-full at all times to avoid condensation issues. It also provides fuel in case you get stuck and need to keep the heater going.
• Check your tire air pressure frequently. The colder the temperature, the faster they tend to go down.
• If you live in an area that regularly gets below zero and don’t have sheltered parking, you might consider installing an engine block heater that can be plugged in at home or your workplace for easier starts.
• But note that today’s modern vehicles do not require significant idling to warm up—in fact it can even harm them. A maximum of 30 seconds, even in the coldest temps, is all that’s needed.
14. Minimize braking and acceleration. Great driving is all about properly managing time, weight, and space. This is especially true in bad winter conditions:
• Don’t brake if you don’t have to. Slow down early enough to roll up to a traffic light change without having to brake completely. If you do need to stop or slow down, start braking early and gently to keep yourself and others behind you in control.
• If a traffic light does change quickly, make a swift judgment call whether it’s really safe to stop—remember that vehicles behind you may not be able to halt in time in these conditions, and it may just be safer for you to go on through the intersection.
• Keep your acceleration gentle and to a minimum—if you hit the gas too much on snow and ice, you’ll just spin your wheels and possibly go into a skid or a slide.
• Use your vehicle’s momentum and time your gear changes to minimize braking and acceleration. If you’re in hilly terrain, let gravity work for you on the downhill, but try not to stop on an uphill—you’ll lose momentum and start sliding backward.
• Give yourself as much space as possible between you and other vehicles. Remember, everything’s takes a lot longer to happen on slippery roads!
15. To pull off or not? And where? Sometimes a driver needs or wants to pull off because of an emergency, fatigue, nerves, lack of visibility, or changing conditions. But this is often a judgment call depending on the location, conditions, and level of traffic. If you’re traveling up a hill or in a place with narrow shoulders, or there’s a lot of traffic going by, it may be safer for you and others to just keep going rather than pull off—and risk an accident trying to get back on again. If you need to pull off a highway or interstate during a blinding snowstorm, try to find a ramp with an overpass under which you can park temporarily. The overpass will provide shelter and keep your car clearer of snow.
16. Use your thermometer. Many modern vehicles show the external temperature on the dashboard. Use this information to your advantage to tell if conditions are above or right around freezing, or if temps are dropping to the point that ice may be forming. Keep in mind that the temperature displayed may not truly reflect what’s happening on the ground, especially if the road surface has been salted or de-iced, is shaded or unprotected, or if traffic has been grinding ice and frost away. But this extra info can provide very handy clues as to whether driving conditions may be changing quickly.
17. Clear snow and ice off your vehicle before you start driving. Most winter driving tips include this one. But it is mind-boggling how many folks neglect to clear their back windows, mirrors, or even their side windows, leaving them essentially driving blind. Not to mention the huge piles of snow off their roofs, hoods, and deck lids, which often blow off in chunks in the most inopportune moments to the detriment of those traveling behind them. And if you see a vehicle that has not been properly cleaned off, assume that its driver may not see you—and watch out for it accordingly.
18. Drive your own path, not that of others. One well-intentioned tip sometimes offered is to drive in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you if fresh snow is falling, to take advantage of slightly better traction and to use the tracks as a guide. While this can indeed be helpful, the problem is that it tends to cause your eyes to drop to the space right in front of you to follow the tracks—and not up way ahead down the road where you should be looking. It also can lead you to unwittingly repeat whatever errors the vehicles ahead are committing—improper lane positioning, even veering off the road. Avoid blindly following others.
19. Keep your wheel wells cleared. Some cars are prone to significant snow buildup inside the wheel wells, especially at highway speeds. The snow can accumulate to the point that the extra unbalanced weight causes the vehicle to shimmy or wobble, similar to a flat tire. Always keep a long-handled tool such as a shovel or sturdy snowbrush with an ice scraper handy in the car for scooping out this extra snow.
20. Get around snowplows and big trucks—but give them enough room. There’ll be times, especially on highways, when you will need to pass snowplows and semi-tractor trailers, or they’ll want to get around you. Such huge vehicles often travel slowly and kick up enormous amounts of blinding snow, which make seeing and passing them very tricky. The key is to give them plenty of room. Don’t zoom right up behind them, then shoot out sideways into their snow clouds to pass them. A surprising number of snowplow-vehicle collisions occur on American roads, usually the result of inattentive or impatient drivers.
• Never attempt to pass a snowplow on the right; newer plow technology uses wider wings that can clear both the lane of travel and the shoulder simultaneously. Billowing snow clouds can prevent a driver attempting to pass on the right from seeing this blade until it’s too late.
• Plan your passing early and carefully—starting as much as a quarter mile behind to give these vehicles a wide berth. Wait to pass until you see that the left lane is reasonably clear of major ice and snow that could interfere with your vehicle’s tracking during the passing phase. And never pass on the crest of a hill or any place with a limited sightline.
• During the actual passing, stay as far away from the snowplow or semi truck as possible but not so far as to risk veering off the road or shoulder. Keep your speed cautious but steady—hesitation and quick acceleration are not your friends today. With big trucks you may feel a draft coming off them that can sway your vehicle a bit as you pass, and there’ll be a few moments when you can’t see the road with the snow cloud, but don’t be afraid and don’t panic. Taking a deep breath and exhaling forcefully in these moments can help you relax.
• After passing, the worst thing you can do is slip right back directly in front of big trucks and snowplows. They can’t stop as quickly as you can in dry weather—what makes you think they can in worse conditions?
21. Don’t use cruise control and keep both hands on the wheel. By now it should be pretty obvious why.
22. Get winter tires. If you live in or anticipate driving regularly in areas with icky winter weather, one of the best safety investments you can make is to get winter or snow tires. The two are slightly different—snow tires have less highway stability and are noisier but have better ice traction than their winter tire counterparts. But both differ from regular all-season tires in that they’re made with softer rubber compounds that don’t become as hard and rigid in very cold temperatures, they have different tread designs that “bite” better in snow and ice, and they tend to be wider. In fact, a quality winter or snow tire on a front-wheel drive car can make it just as good as an all-wheel drive vehicle. And winter tires paired with an AWD or 4WD vehicle can make an almost unbeatable combination. Since I started using winter tires five years ago, I’ve really noticed the difference at both low and high speeds. Studded tires, however, are less advisable, unless you live in really extreme conditions. They destroy asphalt and can actually make stopping more dangerous on regular pavement.
23. Take a winter driving clinic. Some car clubs, automakers, and motoring organizations offer winter and ice driving clinics where, with the help of qualified instructors, you can practice emergency braking, slalom steering, drifts, slides, and skids. This is a great opportunity to get a feel for how your vehicle behaves on less-than-ideal surfaces before an emergency situation arises, and they can be a whole lot of fun as well. The lessons learned in these clinics can save your life, but a word of caution: Don’t get too overconfident as a result. Remember, always drive for the conditions, know the limits of yourself and your vehicle, and don’t underestimate the risks.