Winter is the perfect time to build crackling fires, safely hit the slopes, and snuggle up with a nice cup of cocoa. It also creates some of the most treacherous road conditions. Because it’s not possible for most of us to hibernate until spring, here are the winter driving tips you need to stay safe and sane on wet, icy, and snowy roads.
Don’t Drive If You Don’t Have To
The best way to stay safe during winter driving conditions is to avoid them altogether. If it’s possible for you to avoid driving in the snow and ice, stay put. However, hunkering down isn’t always an option. If you have to hit the road when it’s snowy, icy, or wet, make sure both you and your car are prepared for safe winter driving.
Maintain Your Vehicle
There are many simple maintenance checks that will help you get your car ready for safe winter driving. Make sure your windshield wipers are in proper working order and can completely clear the window of rain, snow, and ice. Check fluids and top them off if needed. Also check the tread on your tires: worn tires are more likely to slip and slide in slushy, icy, or other winter conditions. Verify that your headlights and taillights work and are properly aligned to give you maximum visibility.
Clear Snow and Ice from Your Car
It can be tempting to do the minimum when clearing off your car before driving in snow. However, snow and ice left on your vehicle can be hazardous to you and other drivers. Snow and ice can blow off a moving car, adding to already dangerous driving conditions. Take the time before you leave home to brush snow off of the roof, hood, windows, mirrors, and trunk of your car.
Keep the Tank Full
Or at least half full. You never know what kinds of delays you might run into during winter driving, and you don’t want to add running out of gas to your list of concerns. This is one of the easiest safe winter driving tips to comply with: during bad weather months, make it a habit to top off your gas every time you reach halfway. This way you won’t get caught near empty when bad weather hits.
Pack Up Emergency Supplies
Safe winter driving can’t always save you from trouble. Be prepared for the worst, and make sure your car is outfitted with supplies in case of an emergency. Include a blanket, warm clothes, a first aid kit, a flashlight or flare, jumper cables, an ice scraper, a shovel, sand or kitty litter to give you traction, and snow chains. You should also carry some water, food supplies—like energy bars or trail mix—and a phone charger.
Check for Ice on Your Mirrors
This is a winter driving tip that professional long-haul drivers use to determine if road conditions are icy. Inspect your outside mirrors. If ice is starting to form on the mirrors, that’s a good indicator that ice is also forming on roadways. Take extra precautions or wait until it warms up to drive.
Turn on the Lights
Being visible is one of the most important safe winter driving tips to keep in mind. Keep headlights on during all winter driving, including during the day. This is especially important if you’re driving in snow or other stormy conditions. If you have automatic lights, check that they work. If you have fog lights, limit their use to foggy and low-visibility conditions.
Although this is a good safe driving tip for all driving conditions, it’s particularly important when you’re facing wet, snowy, or icy roads. Keep your phone turned off or connected to your car’s Bluetooth—and never take your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road to check it. Turn down the radio or turn it off completely. Make sure you’re fully focused on the road and other drivers.
Listen to the Road
Tires make different sounds when driving on snow and ice, which is another reason to keep your radio volume down for winter driving safety. Snowy road noise should be relatively loud because snow is kicked up. If loud noise suddenly stops, you might have moved from snow to ice. Stay tuned in to the sound of your tires on the road to keep on top of road conditions that often change quickly, especially during or right after a storm.
Take things nice and easy when you’re driving on winter roads. Accelerate slowly to make sure you gain traction. If you gun it, you run the risk of slipping and sliding. Notice the speed of other drivers on the road. Going too slowly can cause as much risk as driving too fast. For safe winter driving, find a speed at which you feel comfortable, have control, and stay in the main flow of traffic. Don’t be tempted to step on it because someone in a jacked-up truck speeds by.
Don’t Follow Too Closely
Winter driving can take a lot of patience. It may take ten times longer to come to a stop on ice. When driving in the snow or ice, keep a safe distance so you don’t run the risk of rear-ending the car in front of you. On icy roads, you want to be about twenty seconds behind other cars. This leaves you enough time to properly respond if the car in front of you suddenly stops or a crash occurs up ahead.
Watch Out for Spray
Even if it isn’t currently raining or snowing, your vision can still be obstructed by spray from trucks and other cars. When driving in the snow, anticipate potential spray as you pass large trucks and turn your wipers on to keep you from becoming temporarily blinded. You can also look to spray for clues about how icy the road may be. If the roads are wet, there will be some amount of spray from all vehicles; however, if it’s starting to ice, you’ll no longer see spray.
Don’t Slam on the Brakes
Braking correctly might be the most crucial thing you can do to stay safe—and retain control—on wet, icy, or snowy roads. Slow, steady braking that allows you plenty of time to come to a stop before a light or stop sign. If you hit a slippery patch of road, the best way to slow down is to ease off the accelerator and downshift before applying the brakes. When you do step on the brakes, slowly apply firm, steady pressure to keep your wheels from locking up.
Make Controlled, Smooth Movements
It’s not just braking that puts you at risk. The way you change lanes, turn, and pull out when driving in the snow or ice are equally important. Quick, jerky movements are more likely to cause you to slip, slide, and lose control of your vehicle, so allow yourself plenty of time for all road maneuvers. Make all movements on the road as slowly and gently as possible.
Watch Out for Bridges, Overpasses, and Ramps
Pay attention to the features of the road during winter driving. Areas like bridges, ramps, and overpasses tend to freeze first and stay frozen longer than other stretches of road. Slow down as you approach these areas—as they are prime spots for black ice—and pay extra attention to the sound and feel of the road.
Turn in to a Slide
If you start to skid or slide, the most important thing is regaining control of the car. Let off the gas to help the car naturally decelerate. Gently steer into the direction of the slide or skid to stabilize the car and regain control. Avoid reacting by turning the wheel away from the direction of the slide, as this can lead to overcorrection and make the slide worse or cause the car to flip.
Don’t get caught by surprise on wintry roads. Use these safe winter driving tips to be prepared for the worst that the season has to offer. And help make the roads safer for other drivers by sharing these winter driving safety tips and tricks with friends, family, and colleagues.
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. ou can find her work and contributions in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, HGTV, MSN, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips. Learn more