Winter Driving Tips

car driving down snowy road








Winter is here, and that means a lot of us are experiencing more challenges out on the road. Snow, ice, and bone-chilling temperatures can make driving dangerous and stressful. Many of us might prefer to hibernate in the winter and drive only when the weather report is clear – but eventually, you’ll need to venture out in a blizzard or an ice storm, so it’s best to be prepared.

Winter driving can be a lot safer if you follow a few simple suggestions. We’ve put together some of the best tips from experts to help you stay safe on the road, even in the trickiest weather conditions.

First things first – clear all snow and ice

This may seem fairly obvious, but you should remove all the snow and ice from the front and back windshields, all the windows, the headlights and taillights, and the back-up camera, if you have one, before driving. If there’s snow on the top of your car, remove as much as you can so it doesn’t slide down and obscure your view while you’re driving. Invest in a sturdy ice scraper – mitten-style scrapers are nice – and keep it in your car.

If you think you don’t have enough time to scrape all the ice off your windshield, consider this: According to PEMCO Insurance, in some states you can actually get a traffic ticket for driving without a fully cleared windshield.

Slow down! Allow extra time and extra space, too

Winter accidents often happen in conditions where drivers just can’t brake as well as they could on dry, unfrozen road surfaces. When you have any kind of ice, snow or slush on the road, you simply need to slow down and be patient. Experts recommend leaving additional car lengths in front of your vehicle, so that you have the extra space you’ll need if you hit a patch of ice or start to skid. Give yourself extra time to reach your destination, too. Driving too fast because you’re late is never a great idea, but it becomes much more dangerous on snowy and icy roads.

Lay off the cruise control

Experienced winter drivers warn against using cruise control on winter roads for a couple of reasons. First, cruise control can lull you into a false sense of security that “everything is under control.” Attentiveness is always a good thing on the road, but it’s truly essential when you’re dealing with snow, ice, slush, or even just ultra-cold temperatures.

Also, if you begin to skid, you’ll need to tap the brake to turn the cruise control off. Braking may not be the ideal thing to do at that moment – simply decelerating could be a better idea – and you’ll be wasting valuable time that you could be using to manage the skid.

Keep your tires properly inflated

winter tires and thermometer

Regardless of the weather, proper tire inflation saves gas and lowers your chances of being in an accident. Remember to check your tire pressure regularly in the winter, because tire pressure can drop when the temperatures drop. This is especially important for older vehicles without built-in tire pressure monitors, but even if your vehicle has a tire pressure monitoring system, it generally won’t alert you until a tire is 25% below its recommended pressure.

Service your vehicle before winter arrives

Another great tip suggested by experts like “Click and Clack” from Car Talk is to do any necessary maintenance on your vehicle before temperatures start to dip. These prominent mechanic brothers point out that it’s a lot harder to do routine maintenance – or even to get your car to the mechanic’s shop – in the bitter cold, or in the snow.

Click and Clack suggest checking the battery and charging system, cooling system, spark plugs, belts and anything else that may be in danger of breaking down over the winter. We would add headlights, taillights, and turn signals to that list. It’s also a good idea to have plenty of gas in the tank on cold days, and to make sure the windshield wipers are working properly and that the reservoir is topped up with sub-zero fluid (might want to stash an extra jug in the trunk, too).

Keep an emergency kit handy

Having a winter emergency kit in the car is key to being prepared for the possibilities of the season. Experts suggest having a flashlight and blanket, food and water, ice scrapers and shovels, and a number of vehicle maintenance items in the trunk, including jumper cables. If you find yourself stuck in a snowbank, a bag of sand or kitty litter can help provide the needed traction to get back on the road.

It may seem like a small detail, but if you’re ever stranded on a highway or a back road in the bitter cold, you’ll be glad you put away these critical resources for emergencies.

Take care when braking, accelerating, and turning

Basically the rule here is to proceed with caution. Whatever you’re doing – accelerating, braking, or turning – do it as slowly and gently as possible.

You want to avoid jamming on or locking up the brakes, because that can put a vehicle into a dangerous skid pattern. We know this is easier said than done – if you feel your vehicle start to skid, your first instinct can be to stomp on the brakes. Instead, experts recommend braking slowly, tapping the brakes if necessary, and trying to slow down the vehicle through passive deceleration rather than trying to make a sudden stop.

For older vehicles, this is a little simpler. Newer vehicles that have features like antilock brake systems, traction control, stability control and electronic brake force distribution tend to lull drivers into the illusion that they can stop and start on a dime. In reality, these systems are not infallible, and they’re no substitute for good defensive driving and slow braking.

It’s important to know how your braking system works and adjust your manual braking strategy accordingly. You may even want to go to a deserted parking lot and (carefully!) practice accelerating and braking in the snow and ice. Again, slow and patient drivers will fare better than those who simply trust their brakes to bail them out of an emergency situation.

And those of you with all-wheel drive, these braking tips apply to you, too. Remember that all-wheel or four-wheel drive can help with traction when you’re accelerating, but once you start braking, those advantages disappear.

Accelerating and turning on snow or ice should also be handled differently than on dry roads. Stomping on the gas pedal or whipping the steering wheel around can throw your vehicle off course or into a skid. Move slowly; then you’ll be able to course-correct (gently, of course!) if you feel the car start to skid or veer off the road.

Make sure you have the proper tires for the weather

studded winter tires

If you live in a place where the winter temperatures are regularly below 45 degrees, you should seriously consider investing in a set of winter tires. Winter tires are made from special compounds that stay pliable in low temperatures, so you get strong traction in snow, ice, and slush, as well as on dry roads when the temperatures are bitter cold. For added traction, drivers in some states can use studded tires and tire chains.

Have your own winter driving tips that we missed? Feel free to share them in the comments. We wish you a safe, warm, and happy winter!

3 thoughts

  1. That’s good advice for anyone driving in adverse winter conditions. Snow tyres don’t really sell in the UK. probably because if it does snow then it’s usually gone in a couple of days. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you’ve got to reduce your speed and leave more space between you and the car in front.

    1. You’ve got a good point, Russ. There are a lot of technical things you can do to make your car and tires perform better in the snow and ice but there’s no reason to overlook common sense items like giving other drivers more space and avoiding situations where you’re in a hurry to get somewhere and drive at a speed that’s not safe for the conditions.

  2. All good points, and then there is visibility. I live in west Michigan where Lake Michigan’s relatively warm waters regurly drop very fine powder when temps approach single digits. All that open water to the west affords us some really blinding, wind whipped powder, which can happen in a lot of other northern states as well, maybe not as frequently.

    So, how do you handle it? I don’t know what the experts say, but in my opinion, it depends. One thing’s for sure, slowing down is a necessity. You can only drive as far as you can see to safely brake. The worst cases usually happen after dark which is most of the time in the winter. The powder swirls brightly into headlight beams so it is critical to keep your distance back far enough to allow the powder to settle down, unless it’s so bad you are crawling. And Brights are a no-no for sure. At speeds below 20 it is preferable to keep the next car in sight, because you can’t afford running up on a standstill. At least you get a moment to react to brake lights. Keep in mind that there are no perfect answers here, driving in these conditions is very dangerous, but sometimes you have no choice, you might be miles from an exit, or anywhere to park safely.

    However my worst ever case came on a brilliant mid-day, driving my daughter home from a bowling tournament through farms with 24″ of fine powder stretching flat and west for 2 miles. We had sustained winds of about 30 MPH from the west and when we got into the open area by these farms I literally could not anything but white and that was only about two feet out any window. So what do you do? I slowed to a 5 mph crawl and tried to hold my track by keeping my steering wheel pointed the same direction. You can’t just stop completely because others may plow into you. You have to feel your way. when we finally broke clear, we were about 6′ onto the shoulder, we could feel we were not level, but had no idea we were that far off the road.

    When you can’t see, tread very lightly.

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