How To Drive In The Snow: Christmas Special Guide
Driving in snow is a tough task no matter where you live. So how to drive in the snow? The first step to safer driving is knowing what kind of winter weather you’ll encounter.
Ice and snow can certainly make travel in the wintertime a treacherous experience. So it’s important to be armed with helpful information to get you safely through the snow season.
The best thing to do in either case is to be proactive. Here’s how.
How to drive in the snow: Prepare & Clear Your Car when the time comes
Our list of winter driving guides starts well before you hit the road. Before the snow starts flying, you want to prepare your car for the season by making sure it can handle challenging winter-driving conditions. Whether you do it yourself or take it to a mechanic, it’s a critical task.
It starts with checking the condition of your tires, making sure they have ample tread to handle snow and are filled to the proper tire pressure. The sides of snowy roads tend to be littered with cars that never should have left their driveways due to worn tires. As the weather gets cold, the amount of pressure in your tires goes down.
Checking their inflation and filling them to the pressure indicated in your owner’s manual or the information placard near the driver’s door is essential.
The most useful safety advice for winter driving is the one too many people ignore—clean the snow off the roof of your car. There’s nothing more infuriating after a snowstorm than to see someone flying down the road with a roof full of snow, locked and loaded like an icy gun, ready to cause an accident. Slabs of snow and ice could fly off the back of your car and hit the vehicles behind you. The snow could also slide forward when you hit the brakes, completely obscuring your view of what’s ahead.
Driving around with snow still covering your roof or windows is illegal in some states and it’s not safe. Invest in a snow brush. It takes a little bit of work, but it’s worth it to avoid an accident or a hefty fine.
Another part of being prepared is having a winter emergency kit in your car. Some of the items you should include in your kit are:
- Ice scraper
- Snow shovel
- Cat litter or sand to give your car traction if you get stuck
- Booster cables
It’s always a good idea to keep your gas tank at least half full. It’s even more important to have plenty of fuel during the winter when there’s a higher chance you’ll get stuck in traffic. Running out of gas in a rural area can be a major headache – and in a worst-case scenario, a fatal mistake.
Check the Tailpipe
Before you start your car on a snowy day, it is vital to make sure your car’s tailpipe – or tailpipes – are clear of snow, ice, or other debris. If the exhaust is clogged, deadly carbon monoxide gas can seep into the car’s cabin.
The colorless and odorless gas can be fatal to those breathing it in an enclosed space.
How to drive in the snow: Don’t Force Your Way Out of a Jam
In deep snow, it’s common for travelers to get stuck on roadways or even stranded.
If you’re ever stuck in the snow or ice while driving, don’t try to floor your way out of the situation. Attempting to get unstuck through acceleration could suddenly launch you forward or lurch you to the left or right, endangering anyone outside of the car and putting you at risk, too. It’s also not good for your vehicle. Remember the infamous flaming snow car incident in Raleigh, North Carolina, a couple of years ago? That car caught fire because the driver revved the engine too hard trying (and failing) to drive up that icy, snow-covered hill.
It’s helpful to have a couple of simple supplies in your trunk to help you get out of a sticky situation for when you do get stuck. Carry something like kitty litter or a long strip of cardboard to help your tires gain enough traction if they become stuck. Keep a small shovel in your car to clear snow away from your tires. Don’t forget to stock some food and water just in case you’re stranded on the road for the long haul.
Drive Super Smoothly and Slow Down
Hopefully, this one is obvious: if you’re traveling on slippery or slushy roads, you should reduce your speed. Speed limits are based on ideal conditions, and if you are driving through heavy snow, you’re not going to be able to go as fast as you would on a clear, warm day. Allow yourself more time to get to your destination if you must drive in the snow
The key to safe driving in snow is being smooth with the steering wheel, accelerator, and brakes. Why? Jerky movements with the controls easily unstick tires that have a tenuous grip on the slippery road, so every turn of the wheel, push of the brakes, and movement of the throttle must be deliberate, gentle, and gradual. Pretend there’s a cup of scalding coffee in your lap and drive so as not to spill it.
Brake Early, Not Often
In addition to slowing down, you should allow for more distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you. The normal following distance rule of 3 to 4 seconds should become 8 to 10 seconds in winter weather. This will make it easier to stop if you need to.
The goal is to have space so you can break early and smoothly to maintain car control. Jabbing the brakes in slick conditions is an easy way to put the car in an uncontrollable skid.
Look Far Ahead & Make sure You Can See and Be Seen
Remember how carefully you drove when you took your driver’s license test? You’ll want to drive even more modestly and with more caution to succeed at winter driving. You need to accelerate and brake as if you have fragile eggs under the pedals that you’ll break if you push too hard or fast. And the slippier the road gets, the farther down the road you should look and think. Anticipate what you’ll need to do next. Allow double the stopping distance when the road is wet, triple on snow, and even more on ice.
Driving safely in winter requires extra concentration.
Heed the Flashing Lights
How much traction do you actually have on a snowy road? One way to know before you get into trouble is to understand what one particular small, amber, flashing light in the instrument cluster means. (It’s an outline of a car with squiggly lines behind it.) If you’re accelerating in a straight line and this light is blinking, this is the stability-control system warning you that the wheels that drive the car are slipping. Heed it. And ease up on the accelerator so the tires regain their grip.
If you’re turning and see a blinking amber light, this is also the stability-control system alerting you that the car is beginning to slide from your intended path. Again, ease back on the accelerator until you are no longer applying any throttle; this allows the car to regain grip. And do not accelerate aggressively when turning tight corners in town on snowy or slushy streets. Always ease into the accelerator so that nothing untoward happens abruptly.
Use Your Anti-Lock Brakes This Way
If all else fails and you need to stop as quickly as possible in snow or on ice, it’s time to engage the help of your car’s anti-lock brake system (ABS). All new vehicles on the road today are equipped with anti-lock brakes, which use an onboard computer to optimize the car’s braking in extreme conditions. If you are in a skid from which you can’t recover or you need to avoid an obstacle—and your vehicle has ABS—push the brake pedal down hard, and don’t let up. The computer will do the rest, keeping each wheel braking as aggressively as possible based on the available traction.
Technology Is Your Winter Friend
The amazing thing about ABS systems is that you can keep the brake pedal fully depressed while steering around obstacles; the computer will adjust the braking force at each wheel to allow you to maneuver while simultaneously slowing down. So in an emergency, don’t just jam on the brakes—keep steering!
Constantly Assess Your Traction
In the course of almost any snowy drive, your available traction will ebb and flow as road and weather conditions change along the route. In addition to the warning lights from the traction-control and stability-control systems, your anti-lock-brake system can help you assess how much grip you have on snow-covered roads.
When you’re driving avoid sudden applications of the throttle, brakes, and steering. If you’re struggling for traction, don’t accelerate excessively – spinning the wheels will only make things worse. Try using second gear to gain grip when pulling away, while higher gears will help the tires keep their grip. Some automatic gearboxes will offer a winter mode, while in a manual car, try to feel grip by slipping the clutch.
If you feel the brake pedal chattering underfoot but detect minimal deceleration, the ABS system has activated, and you can rest assured the road beneath your tires is very slick.
If you can slow down at a reasonable rate without ABS activating, you’re on a more grippy surface. Once again, be sure there are no other cars around you that will be bothered by your unexpected slowing.
Don’t Rely on All-Wheel Drive
Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are great tools to get you moving when the roads are snowy or icy. They are, however, not magic technologies that will keep you from getting in an accident. While they help you maintain traction as you accelerate, they don’t help you break any faster.
In fact, vehicles with all- or four-wheel drive tend to be heavier than the front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicles and can carry more momentum as a result. All-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs tend to have higher centers of gravity than cars, making them more prone to rolling.
It’s been said that careless use of four-wheel drive will just get you into deeper snow before you are stuck.
That said, a four- or all-wheel-drive vehicle driven responsibly will perform better in winter driving conditions than a vehicle with two-wheel drive. Some modern all-wheel-drive systems use active torque vectoring. This is a fancy way of saying that the all-wheel-drive system will help you corner by shifting torque to the wheels on the outside of a corner.
Fit Winter Tires
Technically this isn’t a driving tip—it’s a survival tip. That’s because fitting a set of four winter tires (more commonly called “snow tires“) is actually the best thing you can do to improve your safety margin and reduce your anxiety level on those awful snow-covered roads. Proper winter tires provide far more traction in snow, slush, and on ice than even the best set of all-season tires. We at Car and Driver test winter tires and install them on all of our long-term vehicles, and we have some top suggestions for your vehicle.
Where and When to Chain Up
Many states don’t require passenger vehicles to use chains for winter driving. And generally, our experts agree that winter tires outperform chains on most surfaces. But in some states, where the majority of the residents live in a dry hot climate, you might need to carry chains into the mountains—even if you have mud and snow-rated truck tires or even proper winter tires.
Don’t Underestimate a Light Snow
Most people worry about getting stranded by a foot of snow, but a foot of snow isn’t always what you need to worry about. A dusting of snow can be more dangerous than a thick blanket of it. A thin layer of snow on roads easily melts under the heat from heavy traffic. Subfreezing temperatures can refreeze the snowmelt and turn roads into a sheet of ice.
If you hit an icy patch, the worst thing you can do is panic. The second worst thing you can do is slam on the brakes. Hitting the brakes when you’re on ice turns you into a curling stone without anyone there to steer you in the right direction. You can easily lose control.
The simple fact is, you can’t do much when you’re sliding on ice. There’s no real way to bring your vehicle to a stop without regaining traction or coming to rest against something like the guardrail or another vehicle. What you can do is try to keep your vehicle going as straight as possible by turning your wheel into the spin. Keeping the vehicle straight lowers the chances that you’ll regain traction when you’re sideways, which could subject you to a rollover.
If you’re ever caught in a pile-up accident, odds are high that people are going to hit you from behind. That could be exceptionally dangerous if the traffic is moving at high speeds. Sometimes the best option is to get out of the vehicle and get away from the road. However, you only want to get out if you have a clear shot to the side of the road or behind a barrier or wall. The most dangerous place to be in a pile-up wreck is a pedestrian at risk of getting hit by oncoming cars or flying debris.
Our list of tips for driving safely in winter:
- Prepare & Clear Your Car when the time comes
- Don’t Force Your Way Out of a Jam
- Drive Super Smoothly and Slow Down
- Look Far Ahead & Make sure You Can See and Be Seen
- Heed the Flashing Lights
- Constantly Assess Your Traction
- Don’t Rely on All-Wheel Drive
- Fit Winter Tires
- Don’t Underestimate a Light Snow
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