Winter driving safely

Thanksgiving road trip? Be prepared!

Winter driving safelyThe holidays are right around the corner, and with them, all the family trips to Grandma’s for pumpkin pie. It’s such a shame that Grandma chooses to live in upstate New York (for oh so many reasons) and that every road to her house is an icy skating rink of death from Halloween to Mother’s Day.

At the first sign of snow or ice, the safest thing to do is, of course, not drive. Barring that, never utter the words, “Oh, I think we can make it.” According to a study done by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 800 people die every year as a result of winter driving accidents, ether from injuries or exposure. By steeling both yourself and your vehicle against the murderous tendencies of Jack Frost, these trips can end in a safe and sane turkey-induced coma instead of a fireball at the bottom of a ravine.

The number one safety feature of any vehicle is the driver

Winter driving safely

The importance of staying focused and aware in any driving situation can never be overstated, and that goes triply so in wintry conditions. Training and experience are the keys to staying safe, yet most American drivers only take one class in car control and traffic safety in their entire lives, Driver’s Ed, taken in high school around age 16. While undoubtedly you were a studious angel at that age, the rest of us were discovering sex and remember absolutely nothing else until well after college, and certainly not which way to turn the wheel in case of an icy skid.

It’s time to change that. Ask your insurance company, licensing agency, or state department of transportation about local winter driving courses. Learning car control as an adult is one of the most rewarding ways to spend the day imaginable. As part of the instruction, it’s necessary to slide the car sideways, swerve erratically, slam on the brakes, accelerate idiotically, and do all the other fun things your high school Driver’s Ed teacher would have a coronary over, and the police certainly would certainly frown upon now.

Learning emergency maneuvers in controlled conditions is more than just fun, though; it could save your life. More importantly, it could save the life of your passengers, including the two small ones in the back seat who call you Dad.

By the time four-wheel drive is required, the mistake has already been made

Four-wheel drive

Four- and all-wheel drive vehicles neither stop nor steer any better on ice than their two-wheel drive counterparts. Yes, they do indeed have an advantage in low-traction situations and will continue to move the car forward while lesser vehicles get stuck. However, the moment traction runs out, the vehicle will continue on in whatever direction it was headed until something stops it, like another vehicle, a tree, or perhaps jagged rocks at the bottom of a cliff.

A general rule of thumb for street vehicles in winter is: if four-wheel drive is required to get there, you shouldn’t go there. Stick to the road, stay out of deep snow, avoid hills, and keep off unplowed thoroughfares. All of this applies to four- and all-wheel drive vehicles.

If you still insist that your 4×4 will take you where snow angels fear to tread, remember the old adage, “With two-wheel drive you get stuck. With four-wheel drive you get damned stuck.” Bring recovery gear, such as tow straps, a shovel, a high jack, additional traction devices, and hopefully a winch, as well as all the instruction books that came with all that gear. Know how to use it before you set out and, again, bring warm, stout gloves; leather ones if you’re using a winch.

And again, there is no substitute for training.

Do I really need winter or snow tires?

Winter tires

For drivers who can reasonably expect a period of slick, icy roads, the answer is yes. Winter and snow tires are designed to remain flexible at lower temperatures, allowing them to conform to the road for better grip. Deeper tread depth and special patterns allow the tires to bite through the snow and slush, but still remain free of icy buildup. They also expel water at an increased rate, allowing the rubber to grip the ice through the slippery, sloppy surface layer.

According to Bridgestone Tire, “Mounting winter tires isn’t an over-the-top precaution, it’s an essential safety measure that could save your life.” We agree.

All-season tires are probably fine for drivers who only see a few flurries a year and for whom icy roads are a fluke. Even so, make sure your tires are ready for colder and wetter weather.

And lastly, the change over to winter, all-season, or wet weather tires is a great time to ensure your spare tire and jack are in working order.

Have a plan for additional traction


Even with appropriate tires, it’s necessary to have a plan for additional traction. Tire chains are the usual favorite, but shockingly few people have ever thought about how unbelievably awful it’s going to be when the chains are actually needed and the package is opened for the first time. In the snow. On the side of the road. In sub-freezing temperatures. Probably at night, because it’s colder then and more likely to snow. In short, read the instructions before you leave the house and make sure all the pieces are there. Practice putting the chains on in the warmth and safety of the garage, or even in the relative calm of the auto parts store lot. And add a pair of warm, stout gloves to the package, while you’re at it. You will absolutely need them.

Additional traction solutions like sand, traction mats, or even kitty litter can help to get a stuck car moving again. It’s best to research heavily or already be familiar with these options before setting off.

When driving in snow or wintry conditions, it’s a good idea to have a shovel in the car. Small collapsible models are available. If the car does need to be dug out, your hands are terrible tools for the job, and being cold and wet is the direct opposite of fun. Even if you never need it, someone stuck on the side of the road might. Also, impromptu toboggan.

Winter driving tips you’ve ignored before but will totally listen to now

  • Slow down
  • Stopping may take much longer on icy roads, and might not even be possible
  • The bigger the car, the longer the stopping distance
  • Leave extra room between cars. Loads. Yes, even at low speed
  • Do not mash the gas. Yes, we know it’s fun
  • Do not slam on the brake. Yes, we know it’s fun
  • Slow down
  • Do not use cruise control
  • Bridges, offramps, and shady spots might be extra slippery. Prepare for that
  • Slow down and approach intersections with caution. This is the most likely place for other drivers to be careening out of control
  • Be extra cautious near chainup or removal areas; people are out of their cars
  • Give snowplows extra room. Never pass a snowplow
  • Learn what traction advisories are active along your route
  • Slow the hell down. Yes, really
  • And Seattleites, we’ve all seen the videos. If it snows even one single flake, please don’t drive

Your wintry windshield and you

Winter windshield

Check windshield wiper blades at the beginning of the season to ensure they’re in good working order. There are now also winter blades available that flex more in cold weather and slide easier across frosty or muddy windshields.

Be sure to keep the windshield washer fluid reservoir full of actual windshield washer fluid. It contains antifreeze properties that soapy water just doesn’t have. Keep an extra bottle in the trunk, as well. Being able to see things is the first step in not running into them.

Make sure the windshield scraper is still in the car, and throw a good pair of gloves into the glovebox to go with it. They are a godsend on chilly mornings, and a necessity in emergencies.

Add a snowbrush to your kit. It’s the proper tool for the job and puts distance between the snow and your hands, keeping you warm and dry. Even if it’s rarely needed, it just makes life so much easier when it is.

The half-tank rule

Half-tank rule

The half tank rule is simple: if the fuel level in the car drops to half a tank, fill ‘er up. Should the car get stuck on a snowy, deserted mountain road, keeping the car running and the heater going can mean the difference between life and death.

Emergency preparedness


Speaking of ways to avoid freezing to death by the side of the road, every car should carry an emergency kit during winter months. Things to have in the car:

  • Cell phone. The most important thing to do in an emergency is call for help
  • Cell phone charger
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Snacks and water
  • Emergency poncho
  • Reflective safety vest
  • Spare socks and other clothing items that might get wet
  • First aid kit
  • Blanket
  • Two pairs of gloves, one leather and one latex
  • Rags or paper towels
  • Matches or lighter
  • Whistle
  • Toilet paper
  • Tow rope
  • Jumper cables
  • Flares
  • Spare tire

Don’t Panic

Don't panic

The most important winter driving rule of all, of course, is don’t panic. If you find yourself stuck or stranded, stay in your car, put on your flashers, call for help, and wait until it arrives. After all, you’ve prepared for this. Wrap yourself in your emergency blanket, turn up the heat, and have a granola bar. You’re fine.

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