Safe Driving in Snow and Ice!December 29, 2010 | in Defensive Driving Tips
Few things are as beautiful as the first snowfall, suddenly the drab, leafless trees are transformed by a coating of fresh powder; a mundane street becomes a wondrous new world. Unfortunately, driving conditions are also transformed by winter weather, making even the most familiar routes extremely treacherous. It’s no surprise that snow and ice are both among the top twenty-five causes of car accidents in the US. However, with experience, preparation, and patience, you can feel relatively safe in most winter conditions.
Having grown up in a northern state, I remember that my parents insisted I learn to drive twice: first, in the summer, when the roads were clear; then again, in the winter, when the first snow fell. The car felt completely different in the winter, and I had to recalibrate my steering, braking, and sense of speed, as well as my sense of space, since the roads were significantly narrowed by snow banks. My first piece of advice, then, for those who may be acclimating to a new winter driving climate is: practice. Don’t plan to travel much during your first snowstorm. Instead, have a friend take you to a parking lot or similar open stretch of pavement where you can practice snow driving in a safe environment. Wait until you’ve a got a bit more of a feel for how your car will handle in snow before heading out on the frozen road.
As the fall gets colder, start making preparations for the winter season. First, get your car serviced before the first snowstorm. Check the lights, brakes, heating and defrost systems, antifreeze level, and other basics. This is a good time to repair minor chips in the windshield as well, as these can expand in winter weather. It may be a good idea to coat your windshield with water repellant; this will help with visibility when driving in rain and snow.
If you live in an area that experiences severe winter conditions, you may want to invest in snow tires or chains. Snow tires are a special tire made of a slightly softer rubber, making them more flexible in winter, and with smaller tread grooves. Some areas that experience severe weather may actually require that snow tires be fitted in winter. Snow chains are just what they sound like: chains that fit over one’s wheels to improve traction on very snowy or icy surfaces. These are used in more extreme snow conditions, as snow chains can’t be used on dry roads and limit one’s speed to no more than 30 mph. In areas with heavy snow, you may also want to install heavy-duty wiper blades and/or mud guards and flaps, which will help to keep salt from the roads from corroding your car. Finally, cold weather can decrease your tire pressure, so make sure you keep checking your tires as the temperature drops.
In addition to making sure one’s car is in good shape, it’s also a good idea to have the necessary supplies on hand. Before the start of winter, make sure your car contains a spare tire, shovel, scraper, jumper cables, and salt, cat litter, or gravel (for creating traction on particularly slippery roads.) Creating an emergency kit for your car, which will contain first aid supplies, matches, flares, and other similar necessities, may also be a good idea. Make sure to store these items in a waterproof container.
Once you’re ready to head out on the road, proceed with caution! Snow and ice can be deceptive. First of all, you may not notice ice on the road, particular if it is slick “black ice.” The sun’s glare can also give ice the appearance of water on the road, so drive slowly when approaching what appears to be a wet surface in cold weather. Bridges, infrequently used streets, and shaded areas also tend to freeze first and stay frozen longer, so approach these areas with extra caution.
For this reason, make sure you are always looking ahead in winter weather, so as to be aware of hazards that may be approaching. This also means keeping a good distance between you and the car ahead of you. Following in the tracks of cars ahead is a good way to access slightly “drier” bits of pavement during bad conditions; however, remember that it’s much more difficult to stop quickly on snow and ice, so you need to give yourself and other cars plenty of space. This includes snow plows and sand trucks. Remember that these vehicles are your friends, even if they are slow! Don’t try to pass a plow, as plow trucks often have poor visibility; besides, the road behind a plow is most likely much safer than the road in front of it! Give yourself extra time to reach your destination so that you aren’t tempted to rush in winter weather.
As in most treacherous driving conditions, avoid sudden movements. Try to steer smoothly and brake gently, especially before you enter a curve or turn. Braking suddenly or over-steering can cause a skid. Make sure you review tips on dealing with spins and skids before heading out, as well. Avoid using overdrive or cruise control, but do use lower gears if climbing hills in the snow. Turn on your low beams to increase your visibility; if your wipers are on, your lights should probably be on too. In real blizzard weather, you may want to use your emergency flashers as well.
Above all, drive slowly! Conditions can change very quickly in the winter, especially with the onset of a bad storm. Be aware of what is happening outside your car and how your car reacts. Then, adjust accordingly. Err on the side of caution. Being late is annoying, but it isn’t life threatening.
Getting stuck in the snow can be a problem, especially if you make the mistake of backing into a snow bank (not that I’ve ever done that!). Since we’re now heading into warmer months, I’ll leave you in suspense for a while, as I’ll deal with being stuck in sand, mud, and snow in a later entry. Until then, try not to drive into a sand pit, swamp, or snow bank!
To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!