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3 Tips for Safe Driving in Snow

Stephen Fogel
November 20, 2018

driving in snow

Winter driving presents a wide range of challenges. Knowing how to keep yourself and your car safe in the snow and ice can make the difference between safe travels and a disaster.

If you don’t have a lot of experience driving in the snow, it can feel intimidating. Even if you do it every year, there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few tips for navigating winter safely.

1. Take your time 

Driving on slick wintertime roads requires care. This means every move must be thought out in advance, and done more slowly and carefully than normal. Try to follow these guidelines.

  • Accelerate gently so you don’t spin your wheels.
  • Corner slowly so you don’t slide off the road.
  • Brake gradually with plenty of room ahead so you don’t lock your wheels and skid.
  • Steer smoothly, with no sudden movements.
  • Leave twice as much space as normal between you and other vehicles.
  • Maintain your momentum up hills so you don’t get stuck.
  • Look as far down the road as possible so you can see what lies ahead. 

Car features like traction control and anti-lock brakes can help keep you out of trouble. But taking it slow greatly improves your chances of getting to your destination in one piece.

2. Keep your car cleared of snow and ice

Visibility is one of the most important factors in winter driving. This means clearing the snow and ice off your entire car — not just the windshield. Clear all of the glass areas, the hood, the trunk, the roof, the sides, and the front and rear, especially around your lights. 

Remove anything blocking your front grille and air intakes to prevent your engine from overheating. Clear out the wheel wells if they are filled with snow or frozen slush. 

And while the roof can be hard to reach, that big slab of snow or ice on top of your vehicle can do a lot of damage if it flies off while you’re driving. Some states even have laws against driving with snow piled on your roof. 

3. Be smart about getting behind the wheel

It’s important to assess the risk-to-reward ratio when it comes to driving in hazardous conditions. In many cases, the smartest option is to simply stay home. Check the weather forecasts and be aware of winter storms that are coming, how bad they will be, and how long they'll last. Now weigh this against the reason for the trip. Is it urgent? Can it wait?  

In most cases, postponing your trip until the bad weather passes is the best choice. Whether it’s a brief trip to the mall, or a long excursion to Grandma’s house for the holidays, it’s usually not worth the risk of getting stranded in a severe winter storm.

If you do have to go out, here are some other ways to be a smarter wintertime driver:

  • Don’t use cruise control in slippery conditions.
  • Drive with your low beams on during the day, so other cars can see you better.
  • Never pass a snowplow or a salt or sand truck that’s ahead of you.
  • Slow down when approaching bridges or overpasses; they freeze before the road does.
  • Wear sunglasses when it’s bright and sunny, because snow reflects a lot of light.

Bonus tip: Practice your winter driving skills

The best way to be prepared for wintertime road hazards is to get some experience dealing with these difficult conditions in advance. There are two different ways to do this: 

Take a course at a driving school: Some driving schools teach courses on handling your car on slippery roads. Under controlled conditions, they can train you to control skids, brake safely on wet, snowy or icy roads, stop effectively using your anti-lock brakes, and much more.  

Find a safe local place to practice right after a snowstorm: After the snow stops, drive carefully to a large, uncleared parking lot that isn’t being used. Ideally, it should be covered by a few inches of snow, but not so much that it reaches the underside of your vehicle. Pick a lot that doesn’t have light poles or other obstructions in the middle of it to avoid hitting anything as you practice. Try these exercises that will let you feel exactly how your car will respond under various winter driving circumstances:

  • Straight-line braking: Accelerate gently in a straight line and apply the brakes using light, medium and hard pressure, to see how long it takes to stop, and to feel what it’s like when the anti-lock brakes kick in.
  • Braking on a curve: Do the same thing while you drive in a circle in the center of the lot, leaving plenty of room between your car and the edges.
  • Skid control: Drive in a circle in the center of the lot. Start slowly, then accelerate gently until you feel your vehicle start to lose traction. When you feel your car start to skid, get off the gas and steer in the direction that the car is skidding, while keeping your eyes on where you want the car to go. Repeat this exercise several times until you can feel the skid starting, and can then easily correct it before it gets out of control.
Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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