The massive winter storm and deep freeze across much of US right now is a good time to be reminded about the dangers of driving in snow, ice and black ice and low visibility or white-out conditions.
Winter driving requires more space between you and the vehicle ahead, more attention to changeable road conditions, more attention to the speedometer, and more time to get to your destination safely.
Winter driving also requires less speed on icy or slick roadways, less dependence on technology like anti-lock brakes and traction control, and less trust of other drivers.
Here are some rules of the road to help prevent spin-outs and accidents driving on snow, ice and other winter conditions:
Do not drive unless it’s absolutely necessary
Leave the roads clear for snowplows and emergency responders to do their jobs, including saving the lives of those injured in storm-related driving accidents.
Don’t think you or your vehicle can outsmart the basic laws of physics. The bigger your vehicle and the faster you are traveling, the more distance you will need to stop.
Expect to need as much as ten times more distance to stop in bad weather, even with such high-tech safety features as automatic braking.
If your vehicle is not equipped with adaptive cruise control, which brakes automatically when getting too close to the vehicle ahead, don’t use cruise control at all. You’ll have better control manually.
Accelerate and brake gently
Everything takes longer on icy and snowy roads. Start and stop slowly and smoothly to maintain traction and prevent skidding out of control.
Today’s ABS brakes require that you jam on the brake pedal as hard and fast as you can, and keep your foot down firmly, to activate the system.
The grinding noise tells you tells you the ABS is working. Let it keep grinding – go not let go thinking you have broken something.
Release the brake when you need to steer, since the vehicle can do only one thing at a time. You are not good at multi-tasking, and neither is your vehicle.
Watch the thermometer
Temperatures right around freezing are especially dangerous, because wet snow and ice are more slippery than the frozen solid variety.
Most dangerous of all is so-called black ice, a thin veneer of ice on an otherwise dry road. It is not visible, and you can spin out without knowing why.
Be aware at dips in the road and other shady spots, bridges and overpasses, where melt-down can freeze while the rest of the road is only wet.
Beware of blowing snow
That can hide a layer of ice, including black ice.
The safest snow to drive on is the kind that crunches under the wheels. That tells you the snow is firm enough to provide traction in starts and stops.
Avoid changing lanes
You are more likely to lose control trying to drive over that build-up of snow or slush between lanes than if you stay where you are, says the AAA.
Take care of your tires
Make sure they are properly inflated, and never mix radial tires with other types of tires.
Rotate tires according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Keep the windshield reservoir full
You’ll be using a lot to keep the windshield clear of road salt and grime.
Never use plain water, unless you want a coat of ice that’s all but impossible to defrost.
Also, never use water on a frozen lock. Instead, use a quick blast with a hair dryer, a quick squirt of 10 W 40, or a commercial lock de-icer.
Steer yourself out of a skid
Forget that confusing old rule about “steer into the skid”. It’s much easier than that – just look where you want to go and steer to get there.
Smoothly and slowly, please, since quick and jerky steering can worsen the skid.
Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel
Both ABS and traction control require a firm grip on the steering wheel, advises Edmunds.com. Not white knuckle, just firm.
It’s important to remember not to brake and steer at the same time, because you are asking the car to do too many things at once. Brake first, and when you feel ABS kick in, then steer, gently.
Traction control holds back the spinning wheel and allows the engine’s power to switch to the wheels that have a better grip.
ABS reduces what automotive engineers call “pedal travel” and provides a more constant braking feel, so ABS requires firm, constant pressure – no pumping as on conventional brakes.
In fact, you need to jam on the brakes as fast as you can and as hard as you can – and keep your foot there – to engage ABS. Don’t be scared by the grinding noise – that means ABS is working.
Be prepared for an emergency
It’s also a good idea to carry these extra items in winter –
- jumper cables,
- a blanket,
- snow shovel,
- sand or kitty litter in case your car gets stuck,
- a flashlight,
- warning devices,
- non-perishable food such as power bars or trail mix, and water.
Be sure your cell phone is fully charged before you leave, or keep it charged in the USB port in the vehicle.
Practice recovering from a spin-out in a safe place
It takes practice, and the best way to find out what traction control and ABS can do is to practice skids and emergency stops before you need them.
Find an empty parking lot, such as a school or corporate office campus on a weekend, and seek out a patch of wet, snowy or icy pavement.
You’ll have lots of room to lose and regain control, and you’ll gain the experience and confidence to handle a spin-out if it happens for real.
Find more winter driving safety tips on WinterDrive, the advice page of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat, Colorado.
This article was first published in 2009 and is updated periodically as weather conditions warrant, including for the 2023/24 winter driving season.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter is a journalist with 20+ years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, radio & TV news producer & reporter, and author of guidebooks and smartphone apps – all focusing on travel, automotive, the environment and your rights as a consumer.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter currently serves as President of the International Motor Press Assn. (IMPA) and is a former Board Member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW)
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