We’ve all witnessed the challenges and dangers of driving in snowy and icy conditions. Navigating these tricky conditions requires more than just cautious driving; it demands specific skills and knowledge.
Here, I will share essential tips and techniques for safely driving in snow and ice, combining my hands-on experience with a deep understanding of vehicle dynamics.
Understanding the Challenge
Driving on snow and ice is fundamentally different from driving on dry roads. Traction is significantly reduced, which affects your car’s handling, braking, and acceleration. Understanding and respecting these conditions is the first step in safe winter driving.
- Understanding the Challenge
- 1. Preparing Your Vehicle
- 2. The Art of Slow and Steady
- 3. Increasing Following Distance
- 4. Skid Control
- 5. Hills and Slopes
- 6. Navigating Through Turns
- 7. Utilizing Technology
- 8. Emergency Preparedness
- 9. Practicing and Learning
1. Preparing Your Vehicle
Before the onset of winter, ensure your car is ready for the season:
- Winter Tires: Install quality winter tires. They have special tread patterns and rubber compounds designed for better grip on snow and ice.
- Regular Maintenance: Check your brakes, battery, lights, and heating system to ensure they are in good working order.
- Visibility: Ensure your windshield wipers are effective and your defroster is working correctly. Keep an ice scraper and brush in your car. Even one of those quick defrost sprays are cool to have handy.
- Make sure to have extra fuel: I try to have at least half a tank of fuel at all times. Even if its just a 30 mile trip, you never know what might happen. I also have an emergency 5 liters (about 1.3 galons) fuel canister in my trunk.
2. The Art of Slow and Steady
The golden rule of driving in snow and ice is to do everything gently and slowly. Abrupt movements can lead to skids or loss of control.
- Gentle Acceleration: Accelerate slowly to prevent wheel spin.
- Easy Braking: Apply brakes gently. If your car has anti-lock brakes (ABS), understand how they feel when they engage.
- Master and use engine braking: engine braking slowly reduces your car’s speed and if used properly can help you slow down without touching your brakes.
- Slow Down: Reduce your speed significantly to account for decreased traction.
3. Increasing Following Distance
In snow and ice, stopping distances can be up to 10 times longer. Increase your following distance to give yourself more time to react if the car in front of you stops suddenly.
4. Skid Control
If you start to skid:
- Stay Calm: Panicking can make things worse.
- Steer into the Skid: If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right.
- Avoid Overcorrecting: This can lead to a spin.
- Engine Braking: this is a good technique to master as it will slowly and steadily reduce the speed. Hard braking can unbalance the car even mode and we want to avoid this.
- Gently Apply Brakes: If you have ABS, press the brake firmly. If you don’t, gently pump the brakes.
5. Hills and Slopes
Hills can be particularly challenging:
- Avoid Stopping on a Hill: It’s difficult to get moving again on an icy slope.
- Gain Inertia on Flat Ground: Build up a little inertia on flat ground before you reach the hill.
- Release Gas Over the Crest: Don’t accelerate over the hilltop; let the inertia carry you.
6. Navigating Through Turns
Turning on snow and ice requires a delicate approach:
- Slow Down Before the Turn: Reduce your speed before you enter the turn. Try to use engine braking, but don’t refrain from using the brakes is your speed is too high.
- Steer Gently: Make smooth, slow steering adjustments.
- Avoid Braking in a Turn: If possible, avoid braking while turning to prevent skids.
7. Utilizing Technology
In modern vehicles, technology plays a crucial role in enhancing safety, especially in challenging winter conditions. Understanding and effectively using your car’s technological features can significantly improve your safety when driving on snow and ice.
Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)
- Functionality: ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during braking, allowing the driver to maintain steering control, which is especially important on icy roads.
- Usage: If you need to stop quickly, apply firm and continuous pressure on the brake pedal. You may feel pulsations under your foot or hear a grinding noise — this is normal and indicates that the ABS is working.
Traction Control System (TCS)
- Purpose: TCS helps prevent wheel spin during acceleration by reducing engine power or applying brakes to specific wheels, aiding in maintaining traction.
- Awareness: Be aware of how traction control feels when it engages, so you don’t panic or confuse it with other vehicle issues.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
- Role: ESC assists in keeping the vehicle on its intended path during turns, preventing skids or slides.
- Understanding: Learn how ESC works in your vehicle and the indications of its activation, such as dashboard lights or sounds.
All-Wheel Drive (AWD) and Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)
- Capabilities: Both AWD and 4WD improve traction by distributing power to all four wheels. This can be beneficial in snowy conditions.
- Limitations: Remember that while AWD and 4WD improve traction for moving forward, they don’t help in braking or cornering any better than two-wheel drive vehicles.
Adaptive Headlights and Fog Lights
- Visibility: In poor weather conditions, adaptive headlights can improve visibility by adjusting the light pattern based on speed and steering. Fog lights also help in low visibility conditions.
- Proper Use: Use these lights judiciously to enhance your visibility and to make yourself more visible to other drivers.
Heated Mirrors and Windshield Wiper De-icers
- Clear View: These features help maintain clear visibility by preventing the buildup of ice and snow on mirrors and windshields.
- Regular Checks: Ensure these systems are functioning properly before heading out in snowy conditions.
Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)
- Tire Safety: TPMS alerts you if your tire pressure is below the recommended level, which is crucial for maintaining traction in winter driving.
- Regular Monitoring: Check the system regularly and maintain proper tire pressure for optimal safety and efficiency.
GPS and Navigation Systems
- Route Planning: Use GPS systems to plan routes that are likely to be clearer and safer during winter conditions.
- Real-Time Updates: Modern navigation systems provide real-time traffic and weather updates, which can be invaluable in avoiding hazardous routes.
My car does not have GPS so I’ll just use Google Maps and a phone holder to navigate around. It works beautifully!
8. Emergency Preparedness
Always be prepared for emergencies:
- Emergency Kit: Keep a winter emergency kit in your car, including blankets, food, water, and a first-aid kit. If I know I have a lot to drive, I usually pack 3-4 protein bars too as they usually last a long time and don’t occupy so much space.
- Mobile Phone: Ensure your phone is charged in case you need to call for help. Keep a car charger in your car at all times. I have one of those adapters that for the cigar lighter that charges the phone. Works wonderfully!
9. Practicing and Learning
If possible, practice winter driving in a safe, open area. Learning how your car responds in snowy conditions can be invaluable.
You can practice some stuff even in non-open areas. If you’ve never seen and felt ABS working… I urge you to find a clear road (nobody on it, we all have that alley where there are like 2 people per day pasing in our cities), and drive moderately, like 20mph and stomp on the brakes as hard as you can. You’ll most likely trigger the ABS so you know how it feels and won’t panic in a dangerous situation.
Safe driving in snow and ice is a skill that requires preparation, patience, and practice. By following these tips and understanding your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations, you can navigate winter roads with greater confidence and safety.
Remember, the key to winter driving is not just about how you drive, but also how well you prepare your vehicle and yourself for the challenges of the season.