Ten Winter Driving Tips They Don’t Tell You About
Starting in November, many traffic safety and automobile organizations put out tips for driving in frigid conditions and winterizing your car. Most of what they recommend is sound, but other aspects of winter driving are not mentioned or expounded on in enough depth.
Here are a few of my tips, gathered mostly from 13 years of living in Minnesota and Wisconsin and some 60 cross-country trips across the northern states and Canada in winter months in recent years, including navigating mountain passes during snowstorms.
- Treat everyone like they have the plague. We all know that most drivers don’t leave sufficient following distances in any kind of weather. Even on empty interstate roads, motorists frequently bunch up in little caravans behind other vehicles at 75 mph, trailing only by a couple of seconds. Your best defense is to be downright antisocial—distance yourself from others as much as possible to build up your space cushion, and always plan an escape route. When it’s very wet, your minimum following distance should be six seconds; when it’s very icy, increase it to 12 seconds.
- Be hyperaware of road feel. To drive safely on snow and especially ice, you must be fully alert to how your vehicle feels on the road surface at any given moment. The slightest changes—a sudden floatiness, a tiny sideways shift of a rear tire transmitted through seat vibrations to your butt, a minor rasping noise—often signal a changing condition that requires reducing speed or making other immediate adjustments. Don’t let distractions like talking to passengers or having your music on too loud interfere with this situational awareness.
- Don’t get overconfident just because you have AWD. The only advantage of AWD is it helps you accelerate from a dead stop on a slippery surface without your wheels spinning—period. It won’t help you stop any faster, steer any better, or save you from going into that ditch. It’s just physics.
- Practice deep breathing and relaxing. In difficult driving conditions, nervous tension often builds without our even realizing it. Then we start holding our breath, tightening our muscles, or breathing shallowly, which in turn deprives our brains of much-needed oxygen to think clearly. Recognize these signs of tension and consciously relax, whether by deep breathing, mindfully exhaling, listening to soothing music, or even singing a favorite song.
- Avoid a bad situation in the first place. The best way to avoid getting involved in a crash in bad winter weather is simply to not go out in the first place. Even if you drive well in snow and ice, it doesn’t mean others can. And, even if you have AWD, if mountain passes require tire chains for all other vehicles, seriously question whether it’s wise to be out in those conditions for the same reason, especially at night. Wait until the worst has passed and roads have been cleared—emergency personnel and snowplow crews will thank you, too.
- What really to do in a skid? The best way to handle a skid is, of course, never to get into one in the first place. But, if you do, what action should you take? There’s tons of misinformation about the subject because it’s highly contextual depending on what caused the skid and the type of vehicle involved. In a panic situation, everything usually flies out of your mind anyway. The most important things to remember? Look into the empty space you want to go, remove the original cause of the skid (i.e., speed, braking), and keep both hands on the steering wheel. It’s that simple.
- Turn on your emergency flashers to warn others of sudden slowdowns or deteriorating conditions. Doing this alerts drivers behind you to problems ahead and provides valuable warning time. Every little bit helps, especially if motorists behind you are going too fast or visibility is poor because of blowing snow or fog.
- Drive your own path, not that of others. One well-intentioned tip sometimes offered is to drive in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you to take advantage of the slightly better traction and to use the tracks as a guide. While this can indeed be helpful if lane markings are obscured, it also can cause your eyes to drop to the space right in front of you—and not up way ahead down the road where you should be looking. It can also lead you to unwittingly repeat whatever errors the vehicles ahead are committing—improper lane positioning, even veering off the road. Always keep your eyes up and avoid blindly following others.
- Keep your wheel wells cleared. Some cars are prone to significant snow buildup inside the wheel wells, especially at highway speeds. The snow can accumulate to the point that the extra unbalanced weight causes the vehicle to shimmy or wobble, similar to a flat tire. Needless to say, this wobbling is bad news when road traction is compromised by ice and snow. Always keep a long-handled tool such as a shovel or sturdy snowbrush with an ice scraper handy for scooping out this extra snow.
- Get around snowplows and big trucks—but very, very carefully. Such huge vehicles often travel deceptively slowly while kicking up enormous amounts of blinding snow, which make seeing and passing them very tricky. A surprising number of snowplow-vehicle collisions occur on American roads, usually the result of inattentive or impatient drivers. Always give these vehicles as much room as possible. Also, never attempt to pass a snowplow on the right; newer plow technology uses wider wings that can clear both the lane of travel and the shoulder simultaneously. Billowing snow clouds can prevent a driver attempting to pass on the right from seeing this blade until it’s too late. Plus, it’s illegal in many states and counties.