Wintertime comes with many perks, including the most wonderful holiday season, gifts for all, and joyful time spent around our loved ones and warm fireplaces during Christmas. But beyond these enchanting moments, winter involves gearing up, keeping yourself warm and coping with the cold, and of course, winter driving. And if you live in the northern part of our country the latter is something you want to master so that wintertime stays wonderful and you safe and sound. Remember these safe driving tips for winter driving:
1. Adapt your speed to the winter driving conditions
Speeding is dangerous in any weather, but it is especially hazardous during the winter, when your vehicle traction, braking, and visibility are all compromised. It is safe to assume that stopping distances more than doubles on ice-covered roads—and driving too fast is usually among the most widespread and treacherous causes of winter accidents. Unsafe speeds increase your chances of losing control on icy or slick pavement. Coupled with the fact these are sometimes not as easy to spot as it might seem, and that makes for a lot of uncertainty. Therefore when driving in frigid temperatures (i.e. anything below 40°F) you should automatically drop your speed. Ice and snow can make your tires lose traction and send you spinning, and it’s easier to react to this uncertain situation if you’re moving at a slower pace. Traveling at a lower speed can help ensure that you can keep or regain your vehicles control in the first place. The rule of thumb is to reduce your speed by 1/3 on wet roads and by 1/2 or more on snow or ice packed roads, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Additionally make sure you keep your vehicle acceleration and braking gentle.
2. Prepare and maintain your vehicle for winter driving
Start by keeping your vehicle clean and in good mechanical condition. This applies to any time of the year of course, but is especially relevant during winter. Some drivers falsely believe that they can forgo washing their car during the winter—but that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Any uncleared snow will corrupt your visibility and increase chances of an accident. Besides, if you live in a place with freezing temperatures, roads will most probably be routinely salted during winter. That is the second reason why it is especially important to regularly wash your car. Salt can quickly cause rust that will damage body panels and / or the frame or unibody of your vehicle, rust your body panels and / or the frame or unibody your vehicle, turning it into a compromising its integrity turning it into a dangerous jalopy. So in order to avoid salt build-up, you’ll want to wash every part of the vehicle’s exterior—including the undercarriage—on a regular basis—at least once a week that is if the vehicle is driven in the salt and snow nearly every day. Next follow the winter vehicle safety checklist as advised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
When the temperature drops, so does battery power. For gasoline and diesel engines, it takes more battery power to start your vehicle in cold weather. For electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, the driving range is reduced when the battery is cold. Have your mechanic check your battery, charging system, and belts, and have them make any necessary repairs or replacements. For hybrid-electric vehicles, keep gasoline in the tank to support the gasoline engine.
Check your headlights, brake lights, turn signals, emergency flashers, and interior lights. Be sure to also check your trailer brake lights and turn signals, if necessary.
Make sure you have enough coolant in your vehicle, and that the coolant meets the manufacturer’s specifications. If you are using distilled water, you should replace it with freezer as per the recommended vehicle maintenance instruction of your manufacturer. See your vehicle owner’s manual for specific recommendations on coolant. You or a mechanic should check the cooling system for leaks, test the coolant, and drain or replace old coolant as needed.
Windshield Washer Reservoir
You can go through a lot of windshield wiper fluid fairly quickly in a single snowstorm, so be prepared for whatever might come your way by ensuring your vehicle’s reservoir is full of high-quality “winter” fluid with de-icer before winter weather hits.
Wipers and Defrosters
Make sure defrosters and windshield wipers – both front and rear – work, and replace any worn blades. You may also want to consider installing heavy-duty winter wipers if you live in an area that gets a lot of snow and ice.
Improperly installed floor mats in your vehicle may interfere with the operation of the accelerator or brake pedal, increasing the risk of a crash. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for mat installation, use retention clips to secure the mat and prevent it from sliding forward, and always use mats that are the correct size and fit for your vehicle.
3. Equip your vehicle with winter tires and safety chains
A common misconception is that all-season tires are equally the same as snow / ice tires. In reality, however, snow and ice tires have a unique tread and a distinct composition, and (in the case of case alpine / ice tires) studs in the tread. Together, these elements make snow tires an essential precondition to winter driving, as are winter chains which you are advised to have at your disposal during winter. Make sure to equip your winter chains each of the driving wheels of your car (i.e. 2 chains for 2WD and 4 for 4WD vehicles). Secondly, as the outside temperature drops, so does tire inflation pressure. Make sure each tire is filled to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure, which is listed in your owner’s manual and on a placard located on the driver’s side of the door frame. The correct pressure is NOT the number listed on the tire. Be sure to check the tires’ air pressure when they are cold, which means the car hasn’t been driven for at least three hours. Read through for safe tire tips:
- Regardless of season, inspect your tires at least once a month and before long road trips. It only takes about five minutes. If you find yourself driving under less-than-optimal road conditions this winter, you’ll be glad you took the time. Don’t forget to check your spare tire.
- You should inspect your tires for any damage or conditions that may require their replacement. Check the tread and sidewalls for any cuts, punctures, bulges, scrapes, cracks or bumps. In case you see any damage, take your vehicle to a tire service professional for further inspection.
- If you plan to use snow tires, have them installed in the fall so you are prepared before it snows. Check out www.nhtsa.gov/tires for tire ratings before buying new ones, and look for winter tires with the snowflake symbol.
- Look closely at your tread and replace tires that have uneven wear or insufficient tread. Tread should be at least 2/32 of an inch or greater on all tires.
- Check the age of each tire. Some vehicle manufacturers recommend that tires be replaced every six years regardless of use, but check your owner’s manual to find out.
For more information on tire safety, visit NHTSA’s Tires page.
4. Mind the surroundings, terrain, and road surface
Again this is pretty straightforward under any driving circumstances but it is exacerbated during winter driving. Any curves or elevation, hills and valleys that is, can make for treacherous driving if the roads are icy so if you should be especially careful while driving on them. If you’re on your way up a curve or up / down a hill and your car loses traction, steer into the slide if you lose control. Steering in the other direction can actually cause your car to fishtail and put you in a worse position. Steer gently into the slide (don’t jerk the wheel) and take your foot off the gas (don’t slam on the brakes). Remember that bridges ice over first. During winter even if the roads themselves aren’t icy, the bridges may be. Bridges ice before the road because they have cold air flowing both over AND under them. Be on the lookout for slick patches and go slowly when driving in winter and crossing bridges. Lastly, stay alert at all times to avoid ‘black ice’. This motorists’ nightmare, is actually regular ice that forms on road surfaces with the exception that it has fewer air bubbles, which makes it harder to spot. Instead of ice, it tends to look like innocuous wet spots on pavement. Anyone with experience driving on black ice, however, can tell you that it’s anything but innocuous. Black ice commonly forms when the temperature of the ground reaches freezing while rain or sleet continues to fall. It also forms more often at night because the sun melts ice and snow, which then refreezes when the temperature drops. Morning commutes become particularly treacherous with black ice. Problem areas are around curves, at the bases of inclines, and anywhere else water collects on a roadway. Most of the time, you don’t know you’re driving on black ice until it’s too late. Spotting black ice is tricky because it looks like water. The best thing to do is to be aware of the weather conditions. If it’s below freezing or supposed to drop below freezing while you’re out driving, assume that every wet spot you see is a patch of black ice. That may seem like overkill, but you’d be surprised how many times that assumption will prevent a spin-out or worse. If your car has an external temperature display inside and reads 32 degrees or below, any wet spots you see are likely black ice. Driving on black ice is difficult to avoid. Stay alert, if you see a spot what you think might be black ice, drive around it as long as it’s safe to do so. It’s also a good idea to know the route and parts that are particularly prone to black ice in order to avoid them whenever you have to drive in freezing temperatures. Finally, keep your eyes open for skid marks or stranded motorists. There’s a good chance you’re not the first one to have found the black ice!
5. Avoid overconfidence and rely on your common sense
Winter driving is more prone to bad chance, or at least to Murphy’s Law if you will. And having a well-equipped vehicle or too much confidence in your driving skills or Four-Wheel Drive or All-Wheel Drive can play a bad game on you. AWD or 4×4 capability can improve traction and handling in the snow. But sometimes drivers have too much confidence in these systems—and that can have dire consequences. Although powering both sets of wheels improves grip in most situations, it doesn’t help when you’re driving on ice and there’s zero traction, nor does it improve braking performance. To avoid losing control while traveling under harsh winter conditions, you should drive just as cautiously in an AWD or 4×4 vehicle as you would a two-wheel drive car. Perhaps the most important piece of advice for navigating treacherous winter conditions is to use common sense. You want to drive cautiously, take care of your car—and basically, just use good judgment. These are fundamentals that you can apply all year long, regardless of the season or weather conditions.