If you’ve ever lived in the snow belt, then you are all too familiar with snowy winter weather for about five months of the year. I learned to drive in the ice and snow in northeast Ohio and am forever thankful for the challenge because, in many ways, it prepared me to be a safe and patient driver in all types of weather. Safe winter driving requires both planning and practice, but if you keep your car well maintained and follow a few guidelines, you can improve your safety on the road. Here are a few things to consider when the snowflakes start to accumulate on the roads.
Stay home. First, check the weather forecast before you decide to hit the road. If driving conditions are poor and the news reports are urging people to stay home, it’s best to stay off the roads, if at all possible. Even the best winter drivers can be unprepared for a sudden stop on the highway or avoid a car whose driver has lost control of the vehicle on an icy patch.
Slow down. The easiest way to improve safety on a slick road is to drive more slowly than you would in dry conditions. Expect your commute to take longer during the winter weather and plan accordingly. While you can’t plan for every delay caused by incidents on the road, giving yourself extra time to get to your destination will allow you to enjoy your daily driving experience while keeping you safe. Excessive speeds considerably increase the risk of an accident. It is also important to concentrate on the road and avoid distractions, like your phone.
Keep you distance. Traveling at a safe distance behind the car in front of you doesn’t cost you anything because you are driving at the same speed. A safe driving distance in dry weather normally leaves you with three seconds to react and bring your car to a full stop, should something happen ahead. When the roads are packed with snow and ice, a safe distance is 6-9 seconds between you and the car in front of you. It’s easy to determine whether you’re too close. Just find a marker on the side of the road, like a road sign or lamp post. When the car in front of you passes it, start counting. If you pass the same marker before six seconds have passed, you are too close. If the lane you are in is moving too slowly, consider switching lanes rather than tailgating.
Brake wisely. When stopping or slowing down, gently apply pressure to the brakes rather than slamming on the brakes. Any sudden moves, like slamming on the brakes, accelerating quickly, or jerking the steering wheel to the side, can cause the car to skid or slide out of control. If possible, avoid braking by decelerating to maintain traction.
When going up a slick, snowy hill, start picking up a little speed when the road is still flat. This momentum will help you to avoid hard acceleration on the incline, causing your wheels to spin. Be sure to gently apply the brakes when you’ve made it to the top so you can navigate downhill slowly. If you have anti-lock brakes, apply steady pressure to the brakes on the way down. The ABS will automatically help you keep traction. If you don’t have ABS brakes, lightly pump your brakes on the way down.
Anti-lock brakes can really help keep your car under control. If you begin to lose traction, the ABS will regain traction to prevent you from skidding or losing directional control when you are braking. On a sheet of ice, ABS brakes probably won’t make much of a difference, but in snow and wet pavement, they are one of the best safety features available.
Fill fluids. Keep your car maintained well, especially in the winter. Change the oil regularly and make sure the gas tank is about half full. And, keep the radiator filled with a proper mix of antifreeze and water so it doesn’t freeze up.
Clear Vision. I once made a trip from Virginia to Ohio over the Christmas holiday when my windshield washer nozzles became blocked with ice and I had to pull over to clear them in order to see. I also didn’t top off my fluid before departing on my trip, so I ran out along the way. This was a very dangerous situation and I found myself having to pull over to wash my windshield with snow every few miles until I could get to a filling station where I could buy more fluid. I only had to experience that situation once. Now I remember to take these precautions before a trip:
A new set of windshield wiper blades will work wonders when dealing with the salt spray that can quickly accumulate on your windshield in the winter. Old blades will leave you with a streaky layer of road grime that is nearly impossible to see through. New windshield wiper blades are a relatively inexpensive way to ensure you can see what’s ahead of you. In addition, use a windshield washer antifreeze that has a low freezing point and top it off regularly. This way your windshield won’t freeze over and you’ll have plenty of fluid available to wash off salt spray.
Even the newest blades and the lowest temperature washer antifreeze won’t help if your windows are frosted over. Fog will build on the inside of your windshield if the temperature and humidity in the vehicle are higher than the cold, dry air outside. Warm up the engine before heading out to give the heating system and air ducts a chance to get to an effective temperature. Once the engine is warm, use the defroster to blow warm air on the windshield warm it up so moisture doesn’t condense on it. If the humidity inside the vehicle is high, try turning on the air conditioner for a short time to reduce it.
Sunglasses help reduce the blinding glare that is often present when the sun reflects off icy, white snow. Polarized lenses really help reduce this glare, so keeping a pair within arm’s reach can improve your safety tremendously.
Clear all the snow from your windows to ensure that you have maximum visibility. Keep an ice scraper in the vehicle at all times. For added safety, keep a couple of old towels in the vehicle to clean the windshield, should you need it. Inside and out, dirt accumulates and an old towel can make a big difference in an emergency.
Keep your mirrors clear of any dirt, snow, and ice so that you can see the cars around you.
Check Tires. One of the most important investments you can make for winter safety is your car’s tires. No matter how well you can see or how slowly you drive, if you have no traction, you will slide across ice and snow or hydroplane when it’s wet.
The more tire tread you have, the better. Snow gets compacted into the grooves of the tire and released again as the tire rotates. The less tread, the less traction. Braking requires more distance with tires that have less tread and the chance of hydroplaning increases, too. What’s the minimum tread for winter weather? Consumer Reports’ tire tests show that tires that are half worn, with a tread of 5/32” or 6/32”, start losing performance on wet roads. If your tires have less than half the tread left, then it’s time to start looking for a new set before driving on snow and ice.
Tire pressure also decreases in cold weather due to air compression. Under inflated tires put you at risk in the winter because the weight of your vehicle is distributed to the outside of the tire, reducing the amount of tire traction you have available to you. Over-inflated tires reduce traction, too, because the center of the tire pushes out more. In the winter, do a visual inspection of your tires every day and refill them if they look low. A general rule of thumb is that your tires will lose about a pound of pressure for every ten degree drop in temperature. Use a tire gauge to verify that they are filled to the recommended pressure.
If you live in a snowy area, you will want to switch to your set of four winter tires for maximum safety and performance. Winter tires outperform all-season radials in inclement weather because they have softer rubber compounds that don’t get too hard in the cold, which especially helps improve braking and turning corners on wet roads.
Be seen. A simple way to improve your safety is to make sure others can easily see you. Clear the snow from your headlights and taillights. You’ll be more visible to others on the road when they are able to see your lights and turn signals. Make sure your headlights and taillights function well. In addition to being seen by others, your lights illuminate the road so that you can see well, too. Precipitation and cloudy skies make for lower visibility on the road, so turn your lights on both day and night, even if you have running lights.
Keep warm. Be prepared for the unexpected in cold weather. Anything can go wrong, and you’ll want to keep warm in case your car stalls, you get stuck, or get into a fender bender. Always take a warm jacket even if you’re just making a quick run to the store. In addition to your emergency car kit, carry a blanket, hat, and gloves in the car. They will give you added protection from the cold until help arrives.
By planning ahead, staying alert, and maintaining your vehicle, you can improve your chances of safe travel in wintry weather. Wishing you safe winter travels!