7 Things to Remember When Driving in Winter

Driving in snow and ice presents many challenges. Here are seven winter driving tips to keep you safe when the roads get treacherous.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 70 percent of American roadways are in snowy regions and more than 1,300 people are killed annually on snowy or icy roads. Making sure you’re ready to drive on those roads this winter can save your life, or the life of someone you love.

Be Sure Your Car Is Ready for the Weather

If you’ve parked your car outside, it’s likely covered in snow or ice. Do yourself a favor and clear the windows so you can see what’s going on. Don’t forget to clear off any snow from the top of the car as well. Snow flying from your car can cause visibility problems for other drivers, or even strike other cars and cause damage. In some places, the law requires that you clear that snow from your car.

Your tires are the only thing on your car that touches the ground. As such, tires are critical pieces of safety equipment — especially when roads turn frosty. Be sure that your tires have plenty of tread and are properly inflated. Depending on how often you encounter snow or ice in your driving, you might also consider winter tires.

It’s not something you’ll like to think about, but when the roads are truly nasty it can take time for rescue crews to reach you should you have a problem. Keep the fuel tank close to full so you can keep the heat going if you get stuck. Stock your trunk with a DIY winter survival kit, including warm clothes, blankets, an ice scraper and a flashlight so you can wait out a rescue.

Drive Smoothly and Slowly

SLOW DOWN! It’s better to be a few minutes late than not arrive at all, right? If the forecast calls for nasty weather, wake up early and get on the road so you can give yourself more time.

Plus, driving fast in nasty winter weather is an invitation for disaster. Slippery roads from snow or ice dramatically lengthen the distance you need to a stop. Speed adds even more to that distance.

Avoid abrupt maneuvers. Be gentle with every part of you that touches the car, from your feet on the pedals to your hands on the steering wheel. Sudden steering can induce a skid.

Another thing to consider — if you can avoid slamming on the brakes, do so. Applying your brakes firmly can lock up your tires, causing a skid. Further, maintaining momentum will help you from getting stuck. If you can see down the road that you might need to slow down for a red light, start slowing down simply by letting off of the gas pedal. This allows your car to gradually decrease speed with a lessened chance of losing control.

Anticipate Hazards By Looking Far Down the Road

Because speeding up, slowing down and changing direction are the most likely times you’ll lose traction, it pays to minimize how often you do it. That means watching down the road and anticipating obstacles and hazards you might face as you drive.

Is there a car pulled off to the side of the road with flashers on? You can expect the drivers ahead of you will slam on their brakes as they happen upon the incident. Do the smart thing — ease off the gas pedal and slow down well in advance of the hazard, so you can proceed cautiously past.

Don’t tailgate other drivers, either. They’re dealing with the same road conditions you are, and if you’re too close to them when they lose control you’re likely to plow right into them.

Looking Out for Plows

Snow plow drivers have a tough job — after all, they’re the ones out there trying to make the roads safe for the rest of us. Please, consider the snow warriors when you’re driving. Stay back, well away from the plows. The freshly-plowed snow can cause “snow clouds” that make it hard for you and the plow drivers to see.

Further, the salt, sand or brine that the plows are often dropping to give you better traction can bounce around as it’s dropped, sometimes hitting windshields or causing salt to stick to the underside of your car. And it’s best not to pass a snow plow. Just be patient.

Know Your Car — Does It Have All-Wheel Drive and ABS?

All-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive) allows you to apply power to all four wheels at once, rather than just the front or rear wheels. Theoretically, this should make it easier to keep from getting stuck. However, it doesn’t help you stop any faster — that’s the job of the brakes and the tires. If your tires lose traction, you’ve lost control.

If you do lose control, there are ways to recover. Surely you’ve heard the advice to “steer into the skid.” For many people, however, that doesn’t really tell them much. The better advice? Make sure your front wheels are pointed in the direction you want to go.

When your car begins to lose traction, figure out which end of the car is out of control.

  • If the front wheels are skidding, be sure to steer toward where you want to go. Next, lift your foot off of the gas pedal. Soon enough, your front wheels will begin to grip the road surface and you’ll be back in control.
  • If the rear wheels are skidding, you’ll feel the rear start to come around. In this case, you need to quickly turn the steering wheel toward the direction that the rear is going. Again, let off the gas pedal so you can get back in control.

In both cases, don’t jam on the brakes. Doing so can easily upset the balance of traction, causing you to lose even more control.

If your car (like most cars from the past 20 years or so) has anti-lock brakes (ABS), be sure when you do use the brakes that you keep your foot firmly on the brake pedal, even if you feel pulsing through the pedal. If your car does not have ABS, you’ll need to pump the brakes to keep them from locking up in a hard stop.

Stay Home if You Can

Public health officials have been preaching it throughout the pandemic — the best way to stay safe is to stay home. It’s true on winter roads as well. It’s difficult to be involved in a traffic incident if your car is at home.

You may know to drive as safely as possible in the winter, but not everyone does. Every winter drivers who are either inexperienced with snow or feel as though they don’t have to adapt to winter driving cause havoc on roadways. If you have the option of staying home when nasty winter weather strikes, do so.

Ice Driving Tips

Sometimes, though, driving through winter weather is unavoidable. There are a few things to remember any time you are forced to drive in icy conditions:

  • Take things slow and steady at all times and don’t be afraid to pull over if you feel uncomfortable at all. Patience is the key to safe winter driving.
  • Never use cruise control in icy conditions.
  • Pay extra attention as you cross bridges, overpasses and on/off ramps as those areas are more likely to freeze up.
  • If you feel yourself lose control on a patch of ice,:
    • Don’t slam on your breaks. Instead, just take your foot off of the gas.
    • “Lean into the slide” and turn your front wheels in whatever direction the back of your vehicle is sliding.
    • Don’t panic, as panicked movements could cause you to overcorrect.

Chris Tonn
A lifelong Ohioan, Chris grew up around classic rusty sports cars from Japan and England. He's been covering the automotive industry for nearly 10 years, and is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). A family man, Chris drives a Chrysler minivan, and uses his rusty old Miata as a shelf, until the day it is uncovered as a priceless barn find.