Winter driving is not for the faint of heart. Honestly, even the most seasoned among us (like my husband) still encounter nearly impassable white-knuckle conditions from time to time. Growing up in Florida, I failed to foresee my need to learn how to navigate snow, ice, and wintry mixes in a four-ton vehicle.
Spending over half of my life living in Montana and Vermont, I picked up several tips and tricks along the way that make winter driving slightly safer and less stressful.
Winter driving involves five major areas of concern:
- Car maintenance
- Other drivers
Visibility involves determining how far you can see beyond your windshield when engaged in winter driving. In other words, you shouldn’t drive if you can’t see. Take factors like the rate at which the snow is falling and time of day into consideration. If it snows hard early in the morning before the plows come through, you might not be able to see the edge of the roads or the center line. Winter driving in an all-white wonderland might sound fantastical, but guessing where the road begins and ends takes all the fun out of it.
Winter driving at night provides a double whammy against your visibility; it’s dark and snowy on an all-white road.
Still think you might be okay to venture out? Beware the words “whiteout conditions” in a forecast or out of the mouths of friends and co-workers. Wind plus snow, especially fine, sand-like snow, turns into an all-white swirling cloud preventing you from seeing beyond your windshield.
If possible, stay off the roads in whiteout conditions. Hunker down at home, at your office, or at a friend or family member’s house until visibility improves.
If you find yourself in the middle of a whiteout while driving, try to pull over to a safe location until it passes. If you can’t safely get off the road, go slow and follow the taillights of a car or truck in front of you until you can.
Multiple factors influence traction: type of precipitation, road conditions, drivetrain of your vehicle, and tires.
Type of Precipitation and Road Conditions
Snow, while messy and somewhat slippery, does offer decent traction. If it rains all day during winter, be aware of sudden temperature drops. Rain on roads turns quickly to ice when temperatures drop below freezing. Try to get off the roads before that shift happens. Finally, mixed precipitation, like sleet or freezing rain, creates icy roads while it’s falling. Traction disappears quickly when ice covers roads (and your vehicle). Your car doors and windows often actually freeze shut in these conditions. Additionally, black ice looks exactly like asphalt, making it a nearly invisible danger for drivers.
Drivetrain of Your Vehicle and Tires
Ah, the great Vermont drivetrain selection debate. Can you get by with a front-wheel drive vehicle for winter driving? What’s the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? Honestly, I recommend talking to your friendly local gearhead, mechanic, or car-dealership personnel for answers to these burning questions. I can only speak from my experience.
I managed to survive winter driving in Vermont in a series of front-wheel drive vehicles over the course of twenty-plus years.
Going up hills in slippery road conditions or attempting to navigate a muddy or partially frozen dirt road sometimes proves impossible in a front-wheel drive vehicle, especially if you drive on all-weather tires. If you mostly drive on paved roads, you need snow tires, in my opinion. If you frequently drive on gravel or dirt roads, I recommend upgrading to studded snow tires – and then pray, because you still may not make it anywhere. (Ask my parents how many times my front-wheel-drive cars got stuck in their steep, unpaved driveway during winter.)
When I finally opted for an all-wheel-drive vehicle, I learned newer, all-season tires work well for winter driving on paved roads. I even made it out of my parents’ driveway on these tires recently. If you drive on unpaved roads a lot, you might want to opt for studded snow tires. Regular snow tires also do make me feel more secure, even in my all-wheel-drive SUV. Match your tire selection for winter driving to your comfort level.
Slow and steady represents the safest mindset for winter driving, regardless of your drivetrain and tires. Many overconfident four-wheel drive SUVs with studded snow tires end up in ditches every winter due to driving too fast for weather and road conditions.
Stopping or slowing down too quickly present major challenges when driving on winter roads. If you drive too fast, you won’t be able to stop in time. Leave tons of room between you and the car in front of you. If you try to stop too quickly and go into a skid/slide, you want enough room to stop before you hit the car in front of you or worse – slide into a different lane and/or oncoming traffic.
Pushing down too hard on brakes on snowy or icy roads often causes your brakes to lock up instead of helping you stop. Anti-lock brakes can help with this situation, but you may be initially alarmed by the way they seem to pulsate as you press down on the brake pedal.
As you approach a stop sign or an intersection, use a combination of methods to stop, including lifting your foot off the gas as early as possible, using your transmission to downshift into the lowest gear available to your vehicle, and then slowly and lightly pumping the brake. Alternately, if you have anti-lock brakes, gently but firmly press down on the brake pedal. Most newer cars provide a manual option even for automatic transmission vehicles. Take advantage of it, downshift, and go slowly.
If you happen to own a car with that rare mystical unicorn – true manual transmission, avoid pushing all the way down on the clutch while simultaneously braking.
I tried that once on black ice in Montana, and my car went SIDEWAYS into a ditch. I kid you not. Do you know how to drive out of a ditch when it’s hugging your car on both sides? Neither do I. A nice gentleman in a giant truck luckily drove by a few minutes after this incident and towed me out.
4. Car Maintenance
Have your car serviced and your tires inspected immediately before winter. Those November service appointments fill up fast since everyone has the same idea at once. Plan ahead, and make your appointment early, especially if you need to swap your spring tires for snows. Regardless of whether you opt for snow tires or ride on all-seasons all year long, get your tire tread inspected annually right before winter.
Try to go into winter with newer tires. Aim to keep your gas tank as full as possible all winter long.
If temperatures dip too low, gas in a nearly empty tank may freeze or shrink enough in the cold weather to prevent your car from starting. Keep at least half a tank of gas in the car at all times.
Similarly, fill up your windshield wiper fluid as often as you remember. I once ran out of windshield wiper fluid on the highway during a messy mixed precipitation storm and had to stick my head out the window to drive until I could get to a gas station at the next exit. (Remember that whole visibility concern? I utterly lacked the ability to see out my windshield.) If possible, always carry a spare bottle of windshield wiper fluid in your car. While you’re at it, toss in a blanket, ice scraper, first aid kit, a small shovel, and kitty litter. (Believe it or not, pouring kitty litter under your tires if you get stuck in ice or snow may give you enough traction to drive your way out of a tough spot.)
Finally, your tires will deflate in extreme cold.
As soon as you see the tire indicator light go on in your car, fill your tires up with air to the pressure per square inch (psi) recommended for your type of vehicle and tires. Keeping your tires full of air and at optimal pressure will help you maintain traction on the roads and make it (slightly) easier to stop. I recommend investing in this handy little device in order to avoid driving around looking for a gas station that sells air when you need it the most.
5. Other Drivers
Your biggest enemies on the road are other drivers and their vehicles. If you can’t stop in a reasonable amount of time, these are the obstacles you will smash into. Conversely, they may slam into you if they fail to stop. When living in Kentucky, a nasty ice and snow storm hit my college campus, causing the school to shut down. My bored friends asked me to drive them to the movies. I refused. They exclaimed, “But you live in Vermont! You know how to drive in winter!” I responded, “Yes, but no one else down here does!” I preferred to avoid those inexperienced Kentucky winter drivers, thank you very much. Not driving when you don’t have to is a great way to stay safe.
Final Winter Driving Tips and Tricks
You are now ready for the road! Here are some final winter driving tips and tricks:
- Clean any snow and ice off your car and defrost your windows fully before you start moving. It’s never a good idea to start driving when you only have a peephole to see through the snow and ice on your windshield. (Back to that visibility thing…)
- Go slow enough to give yourself time to stop when you need to, but not so slow that you cause dangerous conditions for cars behind you.
- Keep your distance from other cars on the roads – as much as possible. If you can’t stop, you will run into them (or vice versa).
- Plan ahead for stops, slowing down well ahead of time and shifting your manual transmission into lower gears to help you come to a gradual, full stop.
- Similarly, when stopped, start moving again slowly. Heavily traveled intersections tend to get slippery.
- Make turns slowly and downshift using your manual transmission mode, if possible, before you go into the turn.
- Drive in daylight, when possible. (Remember that visibility thing?)
- If you can’t see, try to find a safe and warm place to stop as soon as possible and wait until visibility improves. Once again, you shouldn’t drive if you can’t see.
- Unless you have a four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle or snow tires on a front-wheel drive vehicle, beware of hills. That sliding backwards feeling is terrifying.
- When you arrive home safely after winter driving, remove any ice or snow build-up from your wheel wells. Kicking works well here. Get your kids involved. If that stuff hardens/freezes solid, it presses on your tires, making it extremely difficult to turn and affecting your ability to stop.
While winter driving is rarely enjoyable, a well-maintained vehicle and the above tips do make it a safer, slightly more comfortable experience.
What was your most harrowing winter driving experience? What additional winter driving safety tips have you learned?