How to Drive Safely in the Winter

If you live in a climate where it gets icy and snowy in the winter, you know how treacherous driving can be. But caution, practice, and proper mental and physical preparation go a long way in being a safe winter driver.

Prepare Your Vehicle

  • Tune up your vehicle. Make sure it’s in good running condition, with a strong battery, properly inflated tires, fresh wiper blades, and a reliable tire gauge (cold temperatures lower tire pressure, so you need to make sure they’re properly inflated more often). Use windshield washer fluid rated for below-zero temperatures so it doesn’t freeze and clog up your nozzles right when you need it most.

  • If possible, invest in winter tires. A dedicated set of winter or snow tires (as opposed to all-seasons) may be one of the best safety investments you can make. Your tires are the only contact points with the road surface, and winter tires are especially formulated for better grip and traction, which help you stop more quickly and steer more accurately in slippery conditions. But remember that studded tires are usually not necessary unless you live in an extreme climate—they are noisy and damage roadways.

  • Always keep your gas tank at least half-full. This will avoid condensation issues, and it also provides fuel in case you get stuck and need to keep the heater going.

  • Stock your vehicle. It’s wise to keep a few things on hand in your vehicle in case of breakdowns or the roads get closed for a day or two:

    • High-calorie, nonperishable foods like beef jerky, nuts, trail mix, and granola bars

    • Water or beverages (wrap containers in a blanket to keep them from freezing)

    • An extra blanket, heavy jacket, gloves, hat, or even a sleeping bag rated for negative-degree temperatures

    • Good-quality snow brush, ice scraper, and a small shovel

    • An extra phone charger, cord, or battery. It’s also good idea to never let your phone’s battery get too low in case you need to make emergency calls.

    • Windshield washer fluid rated for temperatures below freezing

    • Membership or phone numbers for roadside assistance service

    • Jumper cables or a portable battery pack in case your battery dies

Prepare Yourself

Preparing your vehicle seems like common sense, right? But what about preparing yourself mentally?

  • Ask yourself if you really need to travel. The best way to avoid a crash in bad winter weather is simply not to drive in it. Even if you’re good at driving in snow and ice, it doesn’t mean others are. Emergency crews will also thank you for staying home until conditions improve.

  • Clear snow and ice off your vehicle before you start driving. We’ve all seen back windows, roofs, and mirrors heaped with snow and their drivers essentially driving blind. Not to mention the safety issues when huge chunks of this snow blow off onto our windshields in the worst moments. And, if you see a vehicle that hasn’t been properly cleaned off, assume its driver may not see you—and watch out for it.

  • Go slower, increase your following distances, and stay patient. It’s mind-boggling how many drivers don’t adjust their speeds and following distances when it’s icy or snowing, even though their traction is a fraction of what it is when the pavement’s dry. Your following distance needs to be at least double or triple the usual time—at least 6 to 9 seconds, or even more depending on the conditions.

  • Don’t panic. Driving in snow and ice means that your vehicle won’t behave the same. Your back end may slide out or shimmy a little, and you’ll lose steering feel at times. You won’t stop as quickly as you think you’re going to. And this is all completely normal. Staying calm, anticipating these sensations, going slower, staying far enough back from the vehicle ahead of you, breathing deeply to stay relaxed, and correcting issues gently with very small steering and braking inputs will make you a much safer, less stressed-out winter driver. One tip: After it snows, practice steering, braking, and turning in a large, empty parking lot to get a feel ahead of time for how your vehicle performs on slippery surfaces.

  • Be antisocial. When roads are slippery, 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.

  • Don’t crowd the snowplow. These vehicles travel slowly and kick up enormous amounts of blinding snow, which make seeing them difficult and passing them very hazardous. Always give them plenty of distance. Also, 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 road shoulder simultaneously. Billowing snow clouds can prevent a driver from seeing this blade until it’s too late.

Winter Myth-Busters

  • Don’t think that AWD will save you. Many of us believe that four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive on our vehicles will help us stop faster or be safer in slippery conditions. It doesn’t. The only advantage AWD gives us is more traction when accelerating from a standstill. That’s it. So don’t get overconfident just because you have it.

  • Don’t get into a skid. The best ways to avoid one are properly managing your space, reducing your speeds, and braking, steering, and accelerating with a very light touch. No sudden moves!

  • And if you do? Ignore most of the advice you’ve ever heard. It’s confusing and can lead to more trouble, depending on the situation. Just remember this: Look at the empty space you want to go and steer gently into that direction. Don’t overcorrect the steering, avoid braking hard, and very lightly press the accelerator to redistribute the car’s weight to gain traction. It’s really that simple.

  • Our modern vehicles don’t need to idle to warm up. In fact, it actually harms them, and it also needlessly pollutes the environment. A maximum of 30 seconds, even in the coldest temperatures, is all that’s needed.

  • If you do break down, don’t leave your vehicle. Every year, people get injured, killed, frostbitten, disoriented, or lost when they exit their vehicles during winter storms to seek help, and it happens way more often than we might assume. If you’re stranded or see someone in trouble, resist the urge to get out; instead, call for help from your vehicle. Staying in your vehicle also helps emergency personnel locate you easier.

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