Preparing for Winter Driving – How to Drive in Snow and Ice

The three key elements to safe winter driving are:

  • Stay alert; 
  • Slow down; and 
  • Stay in control

It is best to winterize your vehicle before winter strikes. Schedule a maintenance check-up for the vehicle’s tires and tire pressure, battery, belts and hoses, radiator, oil, lights, brakes, exhaust system, heater/defroster, wipers and ignition system. Keep your gas tank sufficiently full – at least half a tank is recommended. Depending upon where you drive, you may consider using winter tires or tire chains.

Winter driving conditions such as rain, snow, and ice dramatically affect the braking distance of a vehicle. The driver’s capability to complete a smooth and safe stop is severely limited due to reduced tire traction. In order to stop safely, the vehicle’s wheels must maintain traction by remaining on contact with the road surface while rolling, referred to as “rolling traction.” When handling slippery winter roads, the keys to safety are slower speeds, gentler stops and turns, and increased following distances. It is recommended that drivers reduce their speed to half the posted speed limit or less under snowy road conditions.

Don’t try to stretch more miles from your tires during the winter months. If your tread depth is getting low, it can have serious effects on dry pavement, but those effects are multiplied in wet and snowy conditions. When in doubt, get new tires.

Tire pressure usually lowers itself in winter and raises itself in summer. Under-inflated tires can cause a car to react more slowly to steering. Every time the outside temperature drops ten degrees, the air pressure inside your tires goes down about one or two PSI. Tires lose air normally through the process of permeation. Drivers should check their tire pressures frequently during cold weather, adding enough air to keep them at recommended levels of inflation at all times.

Sand and salt play a big role in keeping roads safe. The spreading of road salt prevents snow and ice from bonding to the road surface, which is why salt is usually spread early in a storm to prevent snow build-up and to aid in snow removal operations.

Unlike salt, sand does not melt and therefore helps by providing traction on slippery surfaces. Sand is often used when temperatures are too low for salt to be effective or at higher temperatures for Immediatee traction, particularly on hills, curves, bridges, intersections and on snow-packed roads.

Caution must be used when snowplows are on the roadways as snowplows and salt and sand trucks travel much slower than regular traffic. Passing a snowplow can be extremely dangerous as sight lines and visibility near a working snowplow are severely restricted by blowing snow.

Roads are typically cooler in shady areas and drivers may encounter another extremely dangerous element known as “black ice.” Always slow down your vehicle when you see shady areas under these types of conditions.

Here are some safe-driving tips that will help you when roads are slick with ice or snow:

  • Get the feel of the road by starting out slowly and testing your steering control and braking ability. Avoid spinning your tires when you start by gently pressing your gas pedal until the car starts to roll. Start slowing down at least three times sooner than you normally would when turning or stopping.
  • Equip your vehicle with chains or snow tires. Chains are by far the most effective, and they should be used where ice and snow remain on the roadway. Remember that snow tires will slide on ice or packed snow so keep your distance.
  • Reduce your speed to correspond with conditions. There is no such thing as a “safe” speed range at which you may drive on snow or ice. You must be extremely cautious until you are able to determine how much traction you can expect from your tires.
  • When stopping, avoid sudden movements of the steering wheel and pump the brake gently. Avoid locking of brakes on glazed ice as it will cause a loss of steering and control. Every city block and every mile of highway may be different, depending upon sun or shade and the surface of the roadway. (Check your vehicle owner’s manual, if the vehicle has anti-lock brakes, you may apply steady pressure to the brake pedal.)
  • Maintain a safe interval between you and the car ahead of you according to the conditions of the pavement. Many needless rear-end crashes occur on icy streets because drivers forget to leave stopping space. • Keep your vehicle in the best possible driving condition. The lights, tires, brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, and radiator are especially important for winter driving.
  • Keep your windows clear. Don’t start driving until the windows are defrosted and clean - even if you’re only going a short distance.
  • Watch for danger or slippery spots ahead. Ice may remain on bridges even though the rest of the road is clear. Snow and ice also stick longer in shaded areas.

Correctly operating windshield wipers and defrosters are essential to safety while driving in snow and ice conditions. Properly maintained windshield wipers are a must; there are also special blades available that are better equipped to assist in the removal of snow from the windshield. Defroster effectiveness is essential in the initial clearing of snow and ice from the windshield – and in some instances the rear window when a vehicle is so equipped – and should be checked well in advance of need. In certain cases, a change of the vehicle thermostat will restore appropriate heat to the defroster system.


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This article was written by SafeMotorist.com defensive driving staff writers and reviewed for accuracy by defensive driving instructors. All articles are based on current traffic laws and defensive driving practices. This article is intended for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as legal advice or literal interpretation of any specific traffic law.