Winter Driving Safety
Winter is a magical season— with cozy moments, hot chocolate, and enchanting drives in the snow.
While the allure of these pleasures is undeniable, it's essential to remember that winter driving safety is necessary when you hit the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17 percent of all car crashes occur in the winter.
This winter readiness checklist is a complete guide to preparing your car for the upcoming cold weather, minimizing the chances of a sudden mishap.
Understanding Winter Road Conditions
To gain a deeper understanding of the perils of winter driving, let's look at the different types of winter weather conditions and the unique challenges they bring to driving.
Those magnificent-looking, snow-covered roads pose a real challenge when driving. Snow can pile up quickly on the roads, making them slick and messy and increasing the chances of skidding or losing control.
Don’t assume driving on light snow is any safer; it can be just as hazardous. Light snow quickly melts and refreezes into sheets of ice, making the roads even more slippery.
According to the US Department of Transportation, 24 percent of weather-related vehicle crashes occur yearly on snowy, slushy, or icy pavement, while 15 percent happen during snowfall or sleet.
Spotting slushy, icy roads while driving can be challenging until you suddenly hit an ultra-slick patch that puts you in immediate danger.
When ice forms on the roads, your tires have less grip than when driving on snow. Since the tires don't touch the pavement properly, it can make you feel even more out of control while driving.
To prevent accidents in icy conditions, consider minimizing your car trips. You should only drive when it's essential.
While rain might appear to be a lesser winter driving risk than snow or ice, it's not the case when temperatures hover around freezing. Ice can form rapidly, creating slippery road conditions. In such situations, it's advisable to reduce your speed, avoid using cruise control, and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.
Black ice is simply a thin layer of almost transparent ice. Its name comes from the fact that it closely resembles the color of the road, making it nearly undetectable. This lack of visibility can result in slippery and treacherous road conditions requiring even more caution.
Snow accumulation significantly affects driving conditions and can seriously impact a vehicle's traction, maneuverability, and safety.
As snow accumulation increases, driving becomes more challenging. Roads can become slushy, and it's easier for vehicles to get stuck or lose control.
Heavy snowfall can obstruct a driver's view, making it difficult to see the road ahead, other vehicles, or road signs. Fog is another common winter visibility challenge as it reduces the distance a driver can see, making it hard to spot obstacles or other vehicles until they’re very close.
Drivers should use their headlights, reduce speed, increase following distances, and prepare to stop or slow down suddenly if necessary. Clearing snow and ice from windows, mirrors, and lights before driving is also crucial.
Preparing Your Vehicle
To winterize your car, several components of your vehicle need your attention:
Your car’s tires are the first items to check before hitting the winter roads. Check the condition of your tires and measure their tread depth to ensure you get the best traction possible, especially when it's snowing.
If the weather gets extreme where you live, consider switching to winter tires or snow tires with a more flexible and deeper tread. These special tires provide extra grip and enhanced control when snow or slush is on the road.
All-season tires are usually sufficient for moderate or light snow conditions if they have enough tread. Replace your all-season tires if their tread depth is less than 2/32 of an inch.
With every 10°F drop in temperature, tire pressure usually decreases by 1 to 2 lbs. Therefore, it's essential to check your tire pressure as well.
Antifreeze & Wiper Fluid
Antifreeze serves a dual purpose: cooling the car's engine and shielding it from freezing in cold conditions. Remember to check your antifreeze and ensure it’s suitable for the colder weather.
Visibility is paramount when it’s snowing outside and the roads are slushy or icy. Regular wiper fluid may start to freeze when it’s freezing outside, so a wintertime mixture may be more suitable for keeping your windshield clean.
Battery and Electrical Systems
Your car's battery and electrical systems require special attention in the winter. Check your car’s battery and consider replacing it if it’s weak.
The electrical system in your vehicle is responsible for powering various functions, including the ignition, lights, fuel systems, and accessories like the radio and wipers. Inspect all such components to ensure they are operating correctly.
Heating & Defrosting Systems
Your car’s auto heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems keep you warm and comfortable while traveling. The heating and cooling system also controls the moisture level in the car while clearing the windows of ice and fog.
When the weather gets cooler, test your car’s heating system and check if it’s warming properly.
Safe Driving Practices
Simply preparing your car is not sufficient to ensure safety; you must also adjust your driving practices and exercise extra caution when navigating winter conditions.
Also, remember never to drive while under the influence. In 2020, 11,654 people died in accidents caused by drinking and driving. That's almost one-third of all accident deaths that year. These accidents are most commonly reported during the holidays, so winter driving safety is crucial.
Here are some essential tips to practice safe driving in winter:
- Drive carefully. Whenever you're driving on snow or ice, reducing your speed is important to accommodate the decreased traction.
- Avoid quick and jerky movements. When driving on winter roads, it's best to maintain a gentle and gradual approach. Abrupt, sudden actions are more likely to result in slipping, sliding, and losing control of your vehicle.
- Braking techniques. Regardless of whether your vehicle has antilock brakes, maintain your heel on the floor and apply consistent, steady pressure to the brake pedal using the ball of your foot.
- Slow acceleration and deceleration. To prevent skidding and regain traction, apply the accelerator gently. Avoid rushing to accelerate quickly, and keep in mind that it takes more time to come to a stop on icy roads.
- Maintain a safe following distance. Keep a following distance of five to six seconds. This expanded safety buffer allows for additional space and reduces the chances of a collision.
Navigating Icy Roads
Even the most experienced drivers can get perplexed when driving in extreme winter. Here are some tips to help you safely navigate the most severe road hazards.
- Dealing with black ice. If your car starts to skid on black ice, immediately take your foot off the gas pedal and slow down. Do not slam your brakes under any circumstances; this can lead to loss of control. Drive in low gear and lightly tap the brake pedal while navigating a slippery patch.
- Handling snow-covered roads. For safe snow driving, each turn of the wheel, brake application, and throttle maneuver should be purposeful, smooth, and gradual. Of course, driving slowly and keeping a safe distance from other vehicles is also key.
- Strategies for driving on icy hills. Icy hills pose a significant hazard, particularly when descending. Maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel with both hands and avoid distractions such as cell phones. When you spot an obstacle approaching, ensure you have ample time to apply the brakes.
- Approaching intersections and turns. During the winter, intersection safety is critical. When passing through an intersection, be observant of your surroundings, changing traffic signals, the potential for slippery road conditions, and the presence of pedestrians and other vehicles.
Staying Safe in Extreme Cold
Unprecedented situations can arise, and it’s always better to be prepared. A winter emergency kit can be a lifesaver if you are stuck, stranded, or in an accident. Here are some items to include:
- Hand warmers
- Windshield cleaner
- Road flares
- Spare tire
- Jack and lug wrench
- Snow shovel
- Ice scraper
When heading out, select appropriate clothing that provides warmth and comfort. Additionally, opt for suitable footwear, such as insulated, waterproof boots. To minimize the risk of hypothermia or frostbite, always have a warm hat, scarf, and pair of gloves in your car.
Vehicle Emergencies in Winter
If your car experiences a breakdown during the winter, the safest course of action is to remain inside the vehicle, as it will help you stay warm. However, if there's a risk of the car engine catching fire, then pull over, turn off the engine, and exit the vehicle to find a secure location until assistance arrives.
While waiting inside, activate the emergency flashers and check that your exhaust pipes are not blocked by snow. Additionally, run the engine periodically to stay warm and slightly open one window to maintain ventilation.
But what should you do if you’re stuck in the snow? Here are a few helpful tips to remember:
- Remove visible snow.
- Turn off traction control.
- Seek assistance from others to rock the car forward and backward.
- Gradually move in a low gear.
- If unsuccessful, place mats under the driving wheels.
- Alternatively, apply salt, sand, or cat litter.
- Utilize antifreeze if needed, ensuring it's cleaned up afterward.
- Re-enable traction control once back on the road.
Winter Driving at Night
Visibility becomes further compromised with dense fog at night, making spotting any obstacles or hazards even harder.
Regularly check that your headlights are working properly. Also, align them correctly so they are pointing away from other road users and directly at the road.
The Role of Technology
Modern cars have made it easier to drive conveniently and safely. Driver assistance systems such as electronic stability control can improve traction and maintain vehicle stability when accelerating, turning, or braking on icy or snow-covered roads.
Pedestrian detection and blindspot detection also provide an additional layer of safety, alerting the driver to the presence of pedestrians and other obstacles and potentially preventing accidents.
Heated seats and steering wheels take modern vehicles a step further in providing enhanced comfort and warmth to drivers and passengers.
You can also download and benefit from winter driving apps now. These apps provide weather forecasts, information about road conditions, and navigation assistance for driving in bad weather. Some top recommendations include Waze, Weatherbug, and DriveWeather.
Legal and Insurance Considerations
In the United States, there are no legal requirements that enforce the use of winter tires. Nevertheless, it is advisable for individuals driving in regions within the Snow Belt to consider switching to winter tires.
It’s also important to know that driving in the snow won’t invalidate your insurance. However, winter weather can be particularly tough on your vehicle, increasing the chances of accidents and collisions. Collision and comprehensive coverages can provide additional protection for your vehicle, especially from winter weather damages.
Winter Driving for Commercial Vehicles
Winter presents unique challenges for truck drivers due to adverse weather conditions and the need to transport goods safely and on schedule. Here are some special considerations for commercial vehicles:
- Use appropriate winter tires designed for improved traction and performance in cold and icy conditions.
- Carry tire chains and other traction aids to effectively handle deep snow and icy roads.
- Properly distribute the weight of your cargo to enhance stability and traction, minimizing the risk of skidding.
- Perform thorough pre-trip inspections to ensure all systems function correctly, particularly heating, defrosting, and lighting.
- Carry snow removal tools to clear your truck and ensure visibility.
- Stay informed about weather conditions and traffic alerts to adjust your route and driving plans accordingly.
Delivery drivers also must prioritize safety and preparedness to ensure their well-being and the successful completion of their deliveries in challenging winter conditions. Staying cautious, informed, and adaptable is crucial for safely navigating the season.
Winter Driving with Pets and Kids
Winter driving with pets and kids requires extra care to ensure their safety, comfort, and well-being during cold and often challenging conditions.
To secure your pet safely during the journey, use proper pet restraints, such as seat belts, pet car seats, or carriers. Ensure your pet is comfortably warm with blankets or a pet sweater.
Be cautious of overheating; pets can get too hot in a heated car. Carry food and water for your pet during longer trips, as dehydration can occur even in cold weather.
Dress children in warm, layered clothing, including hats, mittens, and winter coats to keep them cozy during the ride. Also, bring snacks and drinks to keep kids hydrated and nourished, especially during longer journeys.
Handling Road Closures and Delays
Stay informed about current road conditions, road closures, traffic jams, or accidents. This can help you keep safe and efficiently plan alternative routes to reach your destination.
Knowing weather forecasts will also help you prepare your vehicle accordingly, including equipping winter tires or carrying essential supplies in case of unexpected delays.
Winter Driving Etiquette
Demonstrating courtesy to other drivers on the road can enhance road safety and create a more pleasant driving experience for all. This includes using turn signals, yielding the right of way, maintaining a safe following distance, and avoiding road rage.
Don’t forget to assist those in need during extreme winter conditions, such as stranded motorists or stuck drivers.
Cleaning and maintaining your vehicle in winter is essential to ensure its performance, safety, and longevity in the cold and often harsh weather.
Wash your vehicle frequently to remove road salt, slush, and other winter grime. Pay extra attention to cleaning the undercarriage, as this is where salt and moisture accumulate.
Regularly inspect and top up essential fluids like antifreeze, oil, and windshield washer fluid. Also, always check for signs of damage and keep an eye on the condition of your vehicle to maintain its safety and reliability on the road.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What are the best winter tires?
Some of the best winter tires include the Michelin X Ice-Snow, Nokian Hakkapeliitta R5, Dunlop Winter Maxx, and Cooper Discoverer True North.
Q. How can I prevent my windshield from fogging up?
Some tips to help you prevent windshield fogging include using the defrost setting, keeping your windshield clean, and warming up your car gradually before driving. Using an anti-fog spray can also help.
Q. What if I get stuck in a snowstorm?
Do not leave your vehicle unless it is absolutely necessary. Run the engine periodically to stay warm, but do so sparingly to conserve fuel. If you hear or see potential rescuers, use a whistle, flashlight, or any other available signal device to attract their attention.
Q. Is it safe to use cruise control in winter?
Avoid using cruise control on slippery and icy roads. It can be hazardous because if your vehicle experiences skidding, the system will attempt to maintain a constant speed, potentially causing rapid wheel spin and a loss of control.
Q. Do I need to warm up my car before driving in the cold?
In cold winter weather, letting your car run idle for approximately a minute before driving is advisable. This helps your vehicle run smoothly and reduces engine wear.
For reliable road conditions and weather updates, you can use the following methods:
- Visit the Federal Highway Administration website.
- Dial 511 for Travel Information Telephone Services.
- Check weather conditions at the National Weather Service website.
As you shift gears for a new adventure, don’t forget to take winter driving safety seriously. Remember, the road can be a treacherous terrain of snow and ice, and being careful and vigilant while taking all these precautions is essential.
Drive with care, always wear your seatbelt, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and prepare your car for the cold weather ahead.
May your winter journeys be as safe as they are scenic.