Practical tips for driving in the snow

As we move deeper into the winter weather season, we can expect more adverse conditions when we are driving.   Winter weather in Virginia brings wind, rain, sleet, and sometimes snow.  The infrequency of snow in Virginia means that many drivers are not used to driving in the snow; for that reason alone, often the safest course of action is to avoid driving on those rare occasions when there’s snow.  Even if you think that you are a skilled (maybe even experienced) driver in snow, don’t forget that a large number of drivers on the road are not.

Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable. So, if you have to venture out into the snow, be prepared, use caution, and know how to respond.  Driving in winter conditions is unpredictable.   Knowing how to respond to specific situations can help you avoid getting in an accident.   Here are some tips to help keep you safe:

1. Be prepared.

  • Check your fluid levels now (radiator, oil, power steering, washer fluid, etc.).
  • Check your tire pressures and tire wear.
  • Check your fuel level.
  • Keep your windshield and headlights clean.
  • Bring a windshield scraper and a shovel. (A bag of sand or ice melt is a good idea, too).
  • In case of breakdown, bring warm clothes, flares, etc.
  • In case of emergency (yours or someone else’s), bring your cellphone or smartphone. Be sure it’s charged.

2. Use caution.

  • If you can, wait for the snow plows and sanding trucks to finish their work before venturing out.  If you see one, don’t attempt to pass it.
  • Slow down and maintain a steady speed. Avoid sudden braking, stops, or other moves.
  • Leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you (much more than usual).  Don’t get frustrated if other drivers pull in front of you; just drop back to let them in.
  • Turn on your headlights.
  • Use low gears, especially on hills.
  • Don’t use cruise control or overdrive.
  • Be extra careful on bridges and overpasses because they freeze first.  You may encounter icy conditions on bridges and overpasses if the temperature is above freezing now, but was below freezing earlier.

3. Know how to respond:

  • If your rear wheels start to skid, you should:
    • Take your foot off the accelerator.
    • Steer in the direction you want your front tires to go. If your rear tires are sliding left, steer left. If they are sliding right, steer right.
    • If the rear tires start sliding the other way, slowly ease the steering wheel towards that side. You might have to switch steering directions a few times before you can get your vehicle back under control.
    • If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
    • If you have anti-lock brakes, do not pump them! Apply steady pressure to the brakes – you will feel them pulse, which is normal.
  • If your front tires begin to skid, then:
    • Take your foot off the accelerator.
    • Shift to neutral, and don’t try to steer immediately.
    • While the wheels are skidding, the vehicle will slow down and traction will return.
    • When you feel the traction returning, slowly begin to steer in the direction you want to go.
    • Finally, put the transmission in drive, or release the clutch, and slowly accelerate.
  • If you get stuck in ice and snow, then:
    • Don’t spin your wheels.  You’ll just make it worse!
    • Turn your wheels from side to side. This will help push snow out of the way.
    • If snow has built up in a mound in front of or behind your tires, then clear it away if you can.  (Hopefully you brought a shovel).  Be careful not to slip and fall while doing so.
    • Pour sand, cat litter, gravel, ice melt, or salt in the path of the wheels to get traction. Be extremely careful if you put a board or something similar under a tire to gain traction; sometimes a spinning tire can eject these materials very forcefully, and create dangerous projectiles.
    • Lightly push on the accelerator to ease your car out.  Sometimes a rocking motion back and forth can help get a vehicle unstuck.

If you follow these tips, they will help keep you safe this winter.  Winter weather brings new challenges for drivers.  If you are prepared, use caution, and know how to respond, you will have a better chance of avoiding an accident or injury.