Winter driving tips
If you're traveling in or out of an area that experiences extreme winter weather, you may have concerns about how to drive in the snow and ice. Depending on where you're headed, you may encounter snow drifts and white outs or ice covered roads. All of these conditions require different styles of driving and condition-specific safety precautions. Learn how to maneuver when driving on ice, snow and other cold weather conditions.
Driving in winter
Reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration show snow and sleet cause around 210,000 crashes and 700 deaths each year. Icy conditions are said to be responsible for around 151,000 crashes and 560 deaths — so safety should definitely be a priority before venturing out on the road. If it can be avoided, you should always wait until conditions improve.
If driving is your only option, it’s important to take precaution. The danger of driving on snow and ice comes with not knowing how to properly prepare your vehicle or drive under harsh conditions. To help guide you in your cross-country travels, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of tips to help keep you safe on the road through winter weather. Take a look at how to prepare your vehicle, along with tips for driving on snow and ice.
Prepare your vehicle for winter driving
- Drive a vehicle you’re comfortable with. Vehicle quirks like touchy brakes and loose steering can make driving on snow and ice dangerous. It's best to drive something you're familiar with so you aren't struggling to find the wiper switch or the lights.
- Service your car. Before you hit the road, be sure that the battery, fluids, brakes, oil and windshield wipers in your vehicle are properly maintained. All of these can be affected by cold temperatures and should be checked before venturing out into winter weather.
- Ensure tires have adequate tread. According to tirerack.com, if you’re moving to an area with extreme temperatures and a lot of snow, skip the All-Season tires and go with winter tires. Thanks to good tread design, pliable tread compound and sufficient tread depth, they help provide the best ice and snow traction. If you’re expecting to encounter snow-covered roads, consider replacing your tires when they reach approximately 6/32” of remaining tread depth. If you’re unsure about the status of your tires, a repair shop should be able to assist you.
- Clear your vehicle of snow and ice before you drive. While this is a safety measure, it may also be the law. New Jersey and Connecticut, for example, both have laws requiring drivers to clear snow and ice from their vehicle before driving. In fact, if you fail to clear the ice and snow and it blows off onto another vehicle causing an accident, you could be held liable for damages in some states. Before you drive, remove snow and ice from ALL of your vehicle’s mirrors and windows, and the roof and hood. And don't forget the exhaust! A clogged exhaust could cause carbon monoxide to back up into the vehicle, causing harm, and even death.
- Fuel up! In winter weather, don't let your car get too far below half a tank of gas — just in case you get stranded. Stop regularly to refuel.
- Use care clearing windows of ice. Never use hot water to defrost a windshield, and avoid turning the defroster on right away — the thermal shock from the change in temperatures could cause the windshield to crack. Instead, start your vehicle, turn the heater on for five minutes to warm it up, and then turn the defroster on. If you’re in a hurry, get some professional de-icer spray and follow the directions carefully.
- Gather supplies. Create a winter driving supply kit to keep in your car when driving on ice and snow.
- Travel with a cell phone and charger. This is one time you don’t want to leave home without it. Add all emergency numbers, including any roadside assistance you have — just in case.
- Buckle up! Even if it’s tempting to forgo the seatbelt, don’t do it. Not only is it the law, it’s also for your safety.
- Take off kids’ winter coats. According to a Consumer Reports article, bulky winter coats should not be worn underneath the harness of a car seat. You can test to see if your child’s coat is too big by putting the coat on your child, sitting them in the safety seat and fastening the harness. Tighten the harness completely, then without loosening the harness, remove the child from the safety seat, take off the coat, place them back in the seat and buckle the harness strap. If it's loose enough to fit a couple fingers underneath, the coat is too bulky. Instead, use a blanket to keep the child warm.
Tips for driving in snow and ice
Once you prepare the car and it's time to hit the road, follow these tips to stay safe during your drive.
- Plan your route. Avoid less-traveled roads if at all possible and check the highway department website for road conditions to help you determine your route. Also, check the weather along your path using this helpful tool from Weather Underground.
- Drive with headlights on. In many states, the law requires turning your headlights on with rain, snow and sleet conditions.
- Leave plenty of room. Leave at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you when driving on snow and ice. Give yourself plenty of space and time to maneuver. Drive with extra care when approaching intersections, off-ramps, bridges or shady spots.
- Brake carefully. Always avoid slamming your brakes when driving on snow. If you have anti-lock brakes, press the pedal down slowly, but firmly, and hold it. It's normal for ABS to vibrate a bit when activated. If you do not have anti-lock brakes, gently pump the pedal, pressing and releasing, especially on icy spots. Don't come to a complete stop if you can avoid it. It takes a lot to start moving on icy surfaces.
- Use care on bridges and overpasses. These are usually the first surfaces to freeze, so approach with care. Brake before the bridge and use steady speed while driving over them.
- Steer gently. The main problem with steering when driving in snow happens when you come out of the ice patch and your tires hit the pavement. If the wheel is turned as your tires hit clear pavement, it can cause your vehicle to dart sharply off the road. To avoid this, gently guide your vehicle through any turns, wait until you are going straight to accelerate and don’t jerk the wheel when on ice.
- Know what to do if you skid. Don’t slam on the brakes or turn sharply. Simply take your foot off the gas and steer your car in the direction you want to go. Wait for the car to slow down so you can regain control.
- Don’t use cruise control. Even if snow hasn't started accumulating, if sand or salt has been applied to roads, the road surface has changed. Stay in control of your vehicle by manually adjusting the speed.
- Use caution on hills. When approaching a hill, gently accelerate before your reach it and keep a steady pace while climbing it. Try to avoid stopping on the hill. If traffic is backed up, stop at the bottom of the hill as it can be difficult to gain traction in the snow and ice while on an incline. When descending, drive slowly, with caution. Avoid slamming on your brakes. Instead, tap them and apply gentle pressure.
- Watch for black ice. “Black ice” often looks like a puddle, but instead it’s a sheet of ice that is very slick. This can be especially prevalent in the mornings and evenings when the temperature drops because it causes melted snow and ice to refreeze.
- Drive in the clear lane. Whatever lane has had the most traffic or has been plowed is often the best lane for travel. If you have to pass and cross into a snow-covered lane, use caution.
- Use turn signals early. If you’re turning or passing, it’s especially important to use your signals when it’s icy or snow-covered. The people behind you will need ample warning that you’re turning so they can prepare in plenty of time.
- Don’t stop for accidents or stranded vehicles on an icy roadway. Unless the stranded driver is in immediate danger, call 911 to contact authorities who are able to safely block the road. Parking on the side of the highway when ice is present can cause other drivers to lose control.
- Leave room for plows. If you are following a plow, grater, or other removal truck, be sure to leave plenty of room. These trucks will be spraying salt or throwing snow, so you’ll want to steer clear.
What to do if you get stranded in the ice or snow
If you run into trouble, here's how to stay safe until help arrives.
- Call for help. If there is a medical emergency or if there has been damage to another vehicle or property, dial 911. If the situation isn’t an emergency, call a friend, the non-emergency police line, or tow truck to help.
- Try to make your car visible. Turn on your emergency flashers, or attach a bright colored cloth to your antenna so other drivers can see you.
- Avoid exertion. Don’t attempt to push your car out of a snow bank or do anything too physical. You don't want to hurt yourself or make yourself too cold or tired.
- Stay inside your car. If possible, stay inside where you're protected from the elements and other vehicles.
- Don’t waste fuel. Keep the vehicle running long enough to warm up the car, but if you think you’ll be stranded for a long time, conserve fuel by turning it off. If you keep everything sealed up and closed, the car should stay warm for a while without the engine running.
- If you get out, keep the doors unlocked. You don’t want to get locked out in the snow.
Whether you're off to see family or traveling across the country for a move, stay safe on the road. If you have any other tips for traveling in the snow and ice, leave us a comment.
View other safety tips and road trip resources in this guide to planning a road trip.
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