Complete Guide to Winter Driving Safety

It’s no surprise that freezing temperatures and slippery roads can cause havoc with both the safe operation of your car and with your nerves. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that snow and sleet are contributing factors to more than 24 percent of car crashes each year and lead to over 1,300 deaths.

Those statistics are sobering, but winter weather happens whether we like it or not. We can’t stop the ice and snow, but we can better prepare ourselves and our cars to deal with these less-than-ideal driving conditions.

Avoid Driving In Dangerous Conditions Whenever You Can

If you are planning to travel or commute during dangerous winter weather conditions, opt for public transportation if it’s available. If conditions are too severe for buses, trains, or airplanes to operate, then it’s likely that driving a car should be avoided, too.

Try to reschedule appointments and travel plans when possible, and if you must work, find out if telecommuting is an option. Staying home and staying safe is an ideal alternative to taking a risk on the roads.

Plan Your Route

Check with local and state highway authorities to determine if roadways are clear enough for vehicles other than snow plows and emergency equipment. If the roads are passable, prepare for your journey by carefully planning a route that takes into consideration all possible weather-related obstacles.

No matter how short or how long your trip, be sure to avoid:

  • Areas Where Water Usually Pools on Roads – Melted snow and slush on roadways during the sunny hours of the day can puddle and freeze into dangerous sheets of ice after dark or if shade encroaches. Icy surfaces can easily cause you to lose traction and control of your vehicle, resulting in a crash.
  • Unnecessary Stops, Starts, or Turns – Routes with many traffic lights, stop signs, or turns can cause issues with controlling the momentum of your vehicle. If you have the option to take a more direct route without stops and turns like a highway or bypass, that’s often the safest alternative.
  • Hilly Roads – Steep hills during icy, snowy, or slushy conditions can contribute to a loss of traction and control of your vehicle. Stopping at the bottom of a hill may be impossible if your car’s momentum is greater than the grip of your tires on the street surface. Loss of traction during an uphill climb on a slick road could send you swerving backwards uncontrollably towards approaching traffic.

Prepare Yourself

Dress for the weather. Even if you don’t wear every piece of outerwear while you’re driving, be sure to have a weather-appropriate coat or jacket, boots or waterproof shoes, gloves, and a hat with you. Assume that at some point during your drive, you’ll need to be outdoors to clean off built-up snow and ice from your vehicle or to help another motorist in distress.

Plan for emergencies. Pack a mobile phone and a charger. Be sure that your spare tire is inflated to the recommended pressure, that you have a working jack and a lug wrench, and that you have an emergency light or set of flares ready for unexpected roadside repairs. Keeping a stocked first-aid kit and a few sets of chemical hand warmers in your vehicle is something you’ll truly appreciate having if you’re ever in need of them. Have a blanket in your trunk in case you are stranded and need to wait for a tow truck or emergency services. A small folding shovel is an invaluable tool to have and is useful for digging snow or ice away from your tires if your car is stuck.

Relax and test conditions before committing. Remaining calm and relaxed while driving in severe winter weather is essential. Test your comfort level on the roads by carefully checking your vehicle’s responses to starting, braking, and making gentle turns when you first set out. If you feel confident, then follow your route and make any changes to it as the need arises. If you’re uncomfortable or unsure of your ability to control your car during your initial test of conditions, then you’re safest to reschedule plans and stay where you are.

Prepare Your Vehicle

Be sure all tires are properly inflated. Before the winter months, check that your tires are not worn or out of balance. Worn tread and wheels that are out of balance will reduce your vehicle’s traction even when road conditions are moderate. If you can’t replace tires with moderate tread wear, at least make sure that the two tires that are the least worn are mounted on your front wheels if you have a front-wheel drive car. As temperatures dip, check air pressure in each tire regularly—at least every two weeks.

Keep plenty of gas in the tank all season. Severe weather conditions may lead to power outages, closed gas stations, and longer driving routes than you are used to. To ensure that you don’t end up stranded and out of gas during a storm, a safe rule of thumb is to make sure that you keep enough fuel in the tank to get you three times as far as you plan to go.

Clear all snow and ice from the car. While most people are accustomed to clearing their vehicle’s glass of ice and snow, many tend to skip the hood and roof surfaces. Clearing all of the ice and snow from your car ensures that chunks of heavy and dangerous accumulation won’t dislodge and strike your windshield or the windshield of vehicles traveling behind you. Visibility is often greatly reduced when snow and sleet are falling, so be certain to clear around your car’s headlights and taillights to make it easier for other drivers to see you.

Check the wiper blades and washer fluid. Windshield wiper blades that are in good condition will help prevent a thin layer of ice from forming and obscuring your view while driving. Top off your washer fluid to ensure that road chemicals and the splashes from other vehicles don’t accumulate and create a hazy mess in your direct line of sight. Never top off with water—only use windshield washer fluid labeled for that purpose. Washer fluid has chemical additives that will help keep the liquid from freezing in the delivery hoses and on your windshield when sprayed.

Clean any areas around emergency sensors. If your car is equipped with an automatic emergency braking system (AEB) or forward-collision warning system (FCW) then you’ll need to pay special attention to the areas surrounding the sensors vital to their operation. Depending on the model of vehicle, these sensors may be located on the front bumper, in the car’s grill, or within the manufacturer’s emblem. Consult your owner’s manual to locate sensors, and then be sure to clear away any buildup of ice, snow, salt, or road grime that may cause that sensor to return improper readings or to fail completely.

Keep a bag of cat litter in the trunk. Plain clay kitty litter or bagged sand can be used in emergencies when your vehicle has lost traction and become stranded. Sprinkle some of the grit either in front of or behind the tires of your drive wheels, depending on the direction you hope to move. If you live in an area with regular snowfall throughout the winter months, investing in traction mats may be an economical (and less messy) alternative to cat litter.

Apply the S.N.O.W. Technique

S – Slow down! Depending on the conditions, this may mean traveling at idle speed. Your car will build more momentum at higher speeds, but icy or slushy roads may prevent you from stopping as quickly as you’re used to.

N – Nice and easy on the gas. Accelerate gradually so that your tires have a better chance at maintaining traction on the road surface. About half of the incidents involving loss of control of a vehicle in weather-related crashes are due to acceleration.

O – Observe other drivers. If you see someone traveling too fast or driving in another way that might compromise their ability to keep control of their vehicle in slippery weather, steer clear and avoid putting yourself in their path.

W – Widen your following distance. Allowing yourself extra space gives you more time to react to cars ahead of you and extra room in the event your vehicle slides unexpectedly.

Have a Backup Plan

While having a plan means you’re more likely to have a successful trek through winter weather, that initial plan could still fail and leave you in a potentially dangerous situation. They key is to carefully create a backup plan before you need it.

Your backup plan will be unique depending on your needs and your driving conditions, but could include things like:

  • Making an alternate route in case there are fallen limbs or other hazards you didn’t foresee that obstruct your original route.
  • Having a friend or family member travel with you to help push or guide your vehicle in the event you get stuck.
  • Preparing to cancel appointments or call your boss if you set out on the road and then learn conditions are too treacherous to make it to your destination.

Remember, when winter weather arrives, your safety and the safety of your loved ones should be your top priorities. No quick trip to the grocery store in icy conditions is worth risking your life!

If you do have to venture out, two key points to remember for safe winter driving are “aware and prepare”—be aware of the current conditions and how they are expected to change throughout the day or evening, and prepare for any time you must spend on the roads by planning ahead using advice like the tips in this guide.