The variability and unpredictability of winter weather can create stressful driving situations, even for folks with lots of road experience during winter months. Limited daylight hours, changing road conditions and temperatures, snow, ice and other precipitation — as well as other drivers of varying skill levels — often present daunting driving situations. However, with some planning, preparation and patience, driving can be less harrowing when conditions turn bleak. For veteran snow drivers, the following tips should be considered reminders, and for those less familiar with harsh conditions, these pointers should help make the experience a bit more manageable.
Allow Extra Time
This may not seem like a driving tip, but it’s where safe winter driving starts: Allow extra time to get to your destination. The same trip in winter weather — even if it’s only rain and poor visibility, but especially in snowy or whiteout conditions — will take longer than it does on a clear, dry roadway. Plan extra time for the trip, which reduces anxiety and should ease the temptation to rush or over-drive the situation.
Leave Extra Room
As driving conditions deteriorate and the road surface becomes slippery, you should increase the following distance between your car and the car ahead. Not only will it give you more room to stop, it will also help you see farther ahead to anticipate events. Don’t rely on the driver in front of you to determine if cars are stopped ahead or the road is blocked — you might notice first and avoid the problem. The recommended following distance for dry pavement is 3 to 4 seconds, which should increase to 8 to 10 seconds when driving in slippery or icy conditions.
Create Extra Time
Give yourself extra time before each stop or turn, simply by slowing early and gently checking the brakes to ensure you can still stop when necessary. Don’t wait until you’re right at the next stoplight to realize you’re going too fast and then end up sliding through the intersection, or entering the next corner too quickly only to discover the car wants to continue straight without turning on the slippery surface. If you slow a little early to “create” time, you can always roll up to the stop or accelerate through a corner as necessary.
Drive for Conditions
The general driving rule for adverse weather is slow down — everything takes longer in slippery conditions, whether it’s accelerating, braking or turning. Accelerate and decelerate slowly, allowing extra time if conditions get worse. If your car has adjustable drive modes use the snow mode, which in most cases will reduce throttle response and/or shift to a higher gear for more gradual acceleration.
Know Your Tires
Tires are a key factor when determining how well your car will perform in winter weather. Tires fall into three general categories: Summer, All Season and Winter. Summer tires are not designed for snowy or icy conditions, whereas all-season tires provide some level of snow and ice performance and are labeled either M+S or All Season. Winter tires have tread compounds that remain pliable at low temperatures, with tread patterns that trade off some performance in dry and wet conditions for excellent ice and snow traction. True winter tires are marked with the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake symbol. The 3PMSF rating is based solely on acceleration performance on medium-packed snow and does not take into account braking, turning or ice traction, making it important to check ratings and reviews when deciding on winter tires.
Know Your Brakes
Most new cars have anti-lock brakes, but older cars may still have brakes without ABS, which require a different braking technique in snow and ice. Experienced drivers probably remember being taught to gently “pump” the brakes in slippery conditions to avoid locking the wheels and sliding, which is still the proper technique for a car without ABS. To stop safely in a car equipped with ABS, the driver should push on the brake pedal and the ABS will “pulse” the brakes to prevent the wheels from locking up. The driver will feel the pulsing sensation through the brake pedal but should not release the pedal until the car has stopped.
Respect 4-Wheel Drive
Tires are very important, even for vehicles equipped with 4- or all-wheel drive — systems that help with acceleration but not necessarily with deceleration, cornering or stopping. With the wrong tires, 4-wheel drive may only get your car moving too fast for the conditions, so it’s important to have all-season or winter tires on your 4-wheel-drive vehicle. A 4-wheel-drive SUV equipped with 20-inch wheels and summer tires might be the first vehicle to end up in a snowbank as a compact car shod with all-season or winter tires drives merrily by. Drive for the conditions — even with 4-wheel drive.
Anticipate Changing Conditions
In wintry weather, the road surface and available traction are often changing — sometimes quickly and repeatedly. The next time you brake may take more distance than the last time, or when you accelerate the tires might slip when they didn’t a few minutes ago. Watch for signals that indicate changing conditions, such as rain turning to snow, snow turning to rain, a different shine to the road surface indicating ice, snow fully covering the road, brake lights ahead, or another car sliding ahead of or behind you.
Slow for Bridges, Off-Ramps
Since a bridge doesn’t have the warmth of the earth beneath it as a road does, cold air surrounds the structure and thus bridge surfaces often freeze before nearby roadways, so drivers should always exercise caution when approaching bridges. Highway on-ramps, off-ramps and side streets do not get as much traffic as main arterials, so they often have more snow or ice than main roads. Therefore, take extra precautions when entering and exiting ramps, or taking less-traveled routes.
Slow for Intersections
Drivers should approach intersections with caution in any weather, but in adverse winter weather extra caution should always be used. At red lights brake early so you don’t accidentally end up in the middle of the intersection. Even if you’re approaching on a green light, check to ensure that cars coming from other directions will be able to stop before the intersection. If cars are stopped in front of you, check to see if they’re having trouble accelerating because of slippery conditions.
Watch Your Mirrors
Another good rule to follow in all driving situations, but especially in the snow: Watch your mirrors to anticipate problems approaching from behind. Did you just have trouble stopping in time for an intersection or other crossing? The driver behind you might have the same experience, so rather than being hit by an approaching car, watch your mirrors so you have time to get out of harm’s way. If you’ve left enough following distance to the car in front, pull ahead and to the right if there is room, turn right or pull into a driveway.
Don’t Use Cruise Control
When conditions are slippery, don’t use cruise control. If your car hits a slippery or icy section of road you want to be in control of the throttle, not the cruise control. Also, you want to be able to vary your vehicle’s speed as necessary based on weather and road conditions.
Know Traction Advisories
When traveling in the mountains, check your state’s department of transportation website before you leave, and make sure you understand the traction advisories that might be issued, such as: Traction Tires Advised, Traction Tires Required and Chains Required. Be sure you know what each advisory means — and what you need to do to legally comply.
Practice Installing Tire Chains
If your travels take you to areas that might require tire chains, practice installing chains before you need to use them. Install them at least once in your garage or driveway; that way you know the chains actually fit your current tires, and what you need to do once you’re on a snow-covered highway and need to chain up.
Slow for Chain-Up Areas
When passing chain-up or chain-removal areas, slow down and watch for stopped cars and people around those cars. Chain-up areas can be very hectic when chains are required, and visibility is likely to be poor due to adverse conditions, so watch for cars entering and leaving the roadway and pedestrians in the area.
Watch for Surprises
When winter roads turn treacherous, you might discover cars stopped where you wouldn’t expect them to be, or pedestrians in the roadway. Always be on the lookout for something unusual that you wouldn’t see under normal conditions, because vehicles might have slid off the road or be stopped somewhere you would not expect.
Give Snowplows Room
In winter weather, snowplows and sand trucks are often out on roads to improve driving conditions. If you approach a snowplow or sand truck, stay back a safe distance and wait until the vehicle pulls over or turns. Passing maintenance vehicles in adverse conditions is ill advised, since you are increasing speed and overtaking into unknown road conditions. The plows are there for a reason. If you absolutely must pass, wait until you have extra room with no oncoming traffic and do so safely.
Full Tank, Chains, Extra Clothes
When traveling in winter weather, keep your gas tank topped so you’re not suddenly low on gas if you experience an extended travel delay or emergency road closure. Always carry chains if traveling on mountain passes where chains might be required. Keep extra winter clothes — including coats, boots and gloves — in the car in case you have to install chains. It’s also a good idea to carry blankets for extra warmth, on the off chance you need to spend extra time in the car during a delay, or if the car gets stuck in the snow and you must wait for assistance.
The best way to make winter driving safer: Stay off the roads. In areas where there are only a few snowy days per year, wait out the conditions. If you live in a Snow Belt state with many wintry days, try to plan your trips so you’re on the road during daylight hours. Even if you’re an extremely good driver in the snow and have a great vehicle with winter tires, remember that other drivers have varying degrees of skill and experience, so always be vigilant — and be careful out there.