Winter snow fell early this year here in the northeast and for the last 12 years I have never been stranded, mostly due to some careful steps to help avoid common harsh weather driving. Here are 20 tips to help you drive through this winter and hopefully avoid getting stranded, getting into an accident or being terrified.
Photo by: chris runoff
Clean off your car. Before you go anywhere, clean your entire car off, not just the windows. Make sure you clear the snow off all top services of your vehicle, the headlights, tail lights, turn signals, fog lamps and all side windows. You need to do this not only so you can see what’s going on around you and so other drivers can clearly see your turn signals. Additionally, here in Pennsylvania, if you don’t clear the top of your car off and snow or ice fly off and damage another car while you are driving, you can be held criminally responsible. Worst case scenario, an icy snow chunk from your roof slides off and goes through the windshield of the car behind you, causing several accidents. Also pay special attention to your wiper blades, making sure ice is not stuck to them and they lay completely flat against the window.
Let your car heat up. Get in your vehicle, turn it on and let it idle while you are cleaning the snow off. I’d also suggest you don’t turn the heater fans on. Without boring you with the technical details, you will get heat in the cabin area much faster by allowing the car to first come up to temperature. Most modern cars have some sort of temperature gauge, when it moves, turn your heat on. Additionally, wait to drive until your vehicle has come up to temperature if possible. Often times the heat of your body compared to the cold interior temperature of the cabin can cause the windows to frost up fairly fast. You can’t combat that with the defroster setting if the car isn’t heated up fully. If you have a rear defogger, turn that on as well.
All wheel (or 4-wheel) drive does not make you a superstar. More and more cars are coming with AWD, including the entire Audi and Subaru lines, and as an option to many more makes and models. Most trucks come with an option to be put into 4-wheel drive. While it is very true that having all wheel or 4-wheel drive makes driving safer, it does not make you a superstar race car driver. Yes you will get much better footing while accelerating and cornering, it does not aide one bit in stopping. The downside here is many drivers with AWD often drive faster than they would in a traditional 2-wheel drive vehicle, either because it simply feels better driving (having owned an AWD car, I will agree it feels better / safer), or because of some ad campaign they’ve seen on TV or read in a magazine ad. Stopping is more important than moving in snowy, icy conditions. AWD also does not help on black ice, so please keep pace with traffic, not passing traffic.
Turn your headlights on. Here in Pennsylvania there is a pretty straightforward, simple law about headlights and inclement weather driving. If your windshield wipers are on, so should your headlights. This is very important when driving in the snow, as visibility is at its lowest. In addition to allowing you to see better, it will allow other drivers to both see you coming and see you going.
Photo by: Iain Cuthbertson
Follow the 5-second rule. When I went through my motorcycle safety coarse more than 10 years ago, they taught us the 3-second rule, something I’m somewhat surprised wasn’t taught in my high school driving class. The basic principle is to find an arbitrary spot on the road, say a speed limit sign or a dotted line marker and watch the vehicle in front of you pass it, then count the seconds until you pass the same point. For winter driving, I’d suggest at least 5 full seconds, more if you can get away with it. This should give you adequate time should you need to brake in a panic situation, without hitting the car in front of you.
Use your turn signals. This has to be one of my biggest pet peeves of drivers, not using your turn signals. If you are going to selectively use them, use them in the snow. It will greatly reduce your chance of being rear ended.
Practice driving in a parking lot. OK, this is where the disclaimer comes in to play. Trespassing onto a business’ parking lot, even if they are not open at the time to learn how to stunt drive is in no way legal. Be aware of this. That said, learning how to slide in a big, open parking lot helped me a lot as a 16 year old, both fun and scary. If the snow is deeper than the height of any curbs, avoid learning that day, you could really ruin your car. In the parking lot, at a slow speed, put your car into a slide by corning hard and let it slide to see what happens. Once that is done, you will now know what it is like to not have any control. Things you can do to help you recover while sliding in a turn are,
- Look where you want to go, not where you are going. This is one of the first things they teach race car drivers. Looking where you want to go will lead your body to put the car in that direction.
- Don’t brake. It seems somewhat counter-productive, but don’t panic and hit the brakes. Your car uses 70% of the front brakes to come to a stop or slow down, in a hard turn this will cause your car to slide in the direction you are going, not helping you come out of the turn properly. Worst case, your back brakes lock all-together and you spin out
- Let off the gas. By letting off the gas, your car will slow down without using the brakes. This can drastically help you when out of control.
Spending some time in a parking lot at a slow, safe speed can help you on a real road should you ever start to drift out of control.
Be aware of snow clogged inside your wheels. If you have your car parked outside during a snow storm with any wind, or you find yourself driving in deep snow, become aware that snow is probably packed on the inside of your wheels. This can cause your steering wheel to vibrate very badly at faster speeds and worse, prohibit your brakes from working properly. If this has happened, the only easy way to clean them out is at a self service car wash with warm water. Should this happen to you, drive as slow as you possibly can until you can remedy the situation.
Let ABS do its job. ABS is an anti-locking braking system where a computer inside your computer pumps the brakes at a high rate of speed to avoid them locking up in a panic braking situation, thus helping you to avoid sliding or skidding. The feeling in your brake pedal and steering wheel can be a bit shocking if you have never experienced it and often causes drivers to let off the brakes. Here again, if you can practice this at a slow speed in a parking lot, you will know what it feels like and be prepared should you ever need to use it.
Photo by: woodleywonderworks
Pump the brakes if you don’t have ABS. Pumping the brakes when you feel you start to slide can be nearly as effective as ABS, so if your car does not have them, try this method.
Crawl through turns. Take your time when approaching intersections and turning. Depending when the last snow plow came through, and the direction it was going, the corners often have excess snow built up in them. If you go into a turn too fast, the built up snow could be enough to get your car to slide sideways. This is a place where taking your time really pays off.
Stay in the rut. Often times, even the best Department of Transportation crews can’t clear all the snow off the roads, or clean it off fast enough. Cars will create ruts in the snow from driving, in bad conditions, there may only be one set of ruts in each direction on a multi-lane highway. Staying in the ruts will give you best chance of keeping your tires in contact with the road surface.
Avoid lane changes. For the same reason I advise you to stay in the ruts, making lane changes, even at slow speeds, can often be enough to start your car spinning. Unless you really need to, I’d strongly advise being a follower here.
Be careful of turning lanes. Turning lanes are created to elevate traffic backing up in high volume areas, however these lanes are often used far less during winter storms. If the turning lane doesn’t look safe, don’t use it. I know this is probably against some law somewhere, but if there is not a lot of traffic on the road, this may be your safer bet.
Travel with someone. If it is really bad out and you must travel, travel with a friend or family member. If you manage to get stuck in deep snow, having a friend can help push your car out. It is also peace of mind as well.
Have your cell phone charged before you travel. If you get in an accident or are stranded, a dead cell phone won’t help you any. Be sure you have it fully charged before leaving for the trip.
Only go where you must go. If the weather is bad, you probably don’t need to go out to the bar or make that trip to the gym. Put it off for a day, until the roads are clear and you can safely drive. I’d rather be stuck at my job for a few extra hours or sleep there over-night instead of wrecking my car and spending the evening in an emergency room or worse, stuck out in the cold.
Tire choices can be really important. Here in Pennsylvania, we have all four seasons and in most cases, all season tires will do just fine, sometimes dedicated snow tires are needed for other parts of the country. If you have performance tires or summer only tires, avoid driving in the snow, or seriously look into a second set, your tires were not meant to be in the snow. Almost as important, the condition of your tires, balding tires won’t do any good. The basic test to find out if you need your tires replaced is to stick a penny head first into the treads. If the tread comes up over Lincoln’s head, you should be OK. If it doesn’t, replace immediately.
Concrete freezes faster than blacktop. Be aware that most bridges have a concrete surface to them and a lot of on / off ramps are made of concrete. This freezes much faster than blacktop, so take extra caution when crossing these items. Some stretches of road are entire concrete, be careful of not only of the concrete, but where the two road surfaces meet each other.
Turn the radio off. Driving in snow can cause some really strange sounds, these sounds can be important to know if you are slipping, sliding or on solid road. If you must have the radio on to hear what traffic conditions are, turn it down to the lowest setting you can. With the radio off, you can also focus on driving.
Driving in the snow doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds, but use your head. Put down your coffee cup while driving, keep both hands on the wheel, and pay attention. If you don’t feel comfortable driving in the snow, don’t. Wait until the roads are clear and then go. Give yourself adequate time and be prepared for delays and slow goings. Leave for school, work or appointments well in advance so you will show up on time.
Bonus 21st tip. Make sure your windshield washer fluid is full, and try to use some that doesn’t freeze. You’ll use your windshield wipers more than you think when it’s snowing or has just snowed. Keeping it full means you will be able to see clearly, using special washer fluid for the winter that has anti-freeze agents in it will help ensure that you can use it when you need it and won’t freeze the moment the fluid hits your windshield.