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Winter driving tips to stay safe in inclement weather

If you really have to go out...

Yes, when it’s bad outside it’s a lot better to just stay home on the couch, stay warm, and stay safe. Sometimes, though, you just don’t have a choice. Whether it’s a wintertime run to the grocery store or a two-hour drive in winter weather, it’s important to know how to stay safe and get where you’re going. Wet roads, snow, slush, ice, and sleet can be a real headache, and that’s not even thinking about the other drivers you’ll share the road with.

Minivan and Car Driving on Snow Covered Road in Winter

Be prepared.

Making sure that your vehicle is ready for winter weather is more than half the battle here. If it seems like we’re calling for a lot of extra stuff to carry around in your car, just remember that it's a lot better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Winterizing your car

Here’s a handy checklist of things to consider when you’re getting your vehicle road ready for winter weather:

Car with Winter Tires Driving on Wintery Road

  • Check your tires!

    • Make sure you have a good set of all season or all weather tires with good tread, although if you regularly see more than an inch or two of snow in the winter, you might consider winter tires. Winter tires provide a real edge in traction, far better than all season tires when the weather gets bad.
    • Make sure that your tires have plenty of tread depth. Here’s an easy way to check: take a penny and stick it in the tread grooves, Lincoln’s head down. If the rubber touches the top of Abe’s head, your tread is at 2/32”, the minimum tread depth required by state law. Now, try the same test with a quarter; if the rubber reaches the top of Washington’s head, your tread is at 4/32”. If you’re good with the quarter, then one last test with the penny; if the tread reaches the Lincoln Memorial, your tread depth is 6/32”. Tires really should be replaced when tread is less than 4/32”, and don’t forget to try this test on all the tread grooves across the width of the tire in case your tires have been wearing unevenly due to an alignment problem.
    • Check your tire inflation, and be sure to check when the tires are cold, as air expands with heat. In extreme cold, it’s okay to be overinflated by a PSI or two to compensate for this.
    • If you live in the Northeast or upper Midwest and there’s heavy snow that stays around for awhile, consider studded or studdable tires. Studdable tires are pre-drilled for dozens of metal studs, the heads of which protrude enough for enhanced grip (especially on ice), then the studs can be removed again by a tire shop when they’re not needed. NOTE: check your state’s laws, as many states don’t allow studded tires or restrict their use to certain months.
  • Don’t forget your spare tire! Make sure your spare is in good shape, fully-inflated and you have the jack, handle, and tire tool.

  • Check out your windshield wipers and make sure they’re up to the winter task at hand.

  • Fill up your wiper fluid with a solution that has de-icing properties.

  • Do a thorough checkup of your car, particularly your battery and charging system.

  • Keep a full tank of gas (or close to it) in case you get stuck or delayed.

  • Check all your vehicle’s lights.

  • Make sure your cooling system is in good shape, as your heater and defroster depend on it.

Make a winter kit

It’s an excellent idea to keep emergency kits in the veichle. Before winter comes, be sure you are stocked with things like:

Winter Kit Checklist

SimpleTip If you have room, it can be a good idea to keep a bag of sand or kitty litter in the vehicle -- that can be enough to give you just enough traction to make it out of a snowbank. If you’ve got a truck, a shovel might even be a good thing to have around.

Safe driving starts with you

Changing your driving habits is just as important as your car’s winter kit and mechanical condition, if not moreso. Knowing the right way to drive in winter weather can mean the difference between getting where you’re going or ending up in a ditch somewhere along the way.

Cars Driving in Winter Weather Conditions

Slow down This is probably the biggest one. Don’t get in a big hurry, and plan an earlier departure time to get where you’re going. Slower speeds mean that you have more time to react and more of a chance of keeping your vehicle under control.

Braking The conventional wisdom used to be “pump your brakes,” but that’s not really accurate anymore, after the advent of ABS braking systems. Anti-Lock brakes proportion braking force automatically, detecting when any wheel might be on the verge of a skid, so there’s no need to pump the brakes. Just remember that braking distances are greater, so start to apply the brakes early and brake gently.

Following distance It’s going to take longer to stop, so you should probably double the following distances and lead time that you would have in dry weather.

High beams vs fog lights Fog lights are really just for foggy, drizzly conditions where visibility is poor; their spectrum of light is designed to cut through the droplets in the air, but they aren’t effective in other kinds of weather. Your high beams probably won’t do much good in those conditions, and will still be just as annoying to other drivers. You’re better off just making sure your headlights are in good shape, aimed properly, and clean.

Seatbelts It goes without saying, and make sure everyone in the vehicle is buckled up too!

Gas pedal Just like with your brakes, go easy on that go-fast pedal. The more power your vehicle has, the more likely it is to get away from you. Remember that a RWD vehicle is likely to oversteer, with the rear end kicking out on a curve; if that happens, steer in the direction of the skid or else you’re likely to end up pointing in the other direction. A FWD car will understeer; in other words, it’ll try to keep going straight as you’re turning. Knowing how your vehicle tends to behave in snow, ice or slush will give you an idea what to expect and make it easier to anticipate and adjust your driving accordingly.

Hills Going uphill, try to get a little bit of momentum to hopefully get you to the peak before your tires lose traction. Downhill, go easy on the brakes to keep your speed down; on a longer hill, you might consider dropping your transmission into a lower gear to allow the engine and drivetrain to assist with braking. In fact, a lower gear is often a good idea when you’re in slippery, difficult conditions.

Snowbanks Try to avoid them, obviously, but if you end up in one, don’t panic. That’s where your kitty litter or sandbag can come in handy, giving you enough traction to get back on your way again. NOTE: the practice of “rocking” the vehicle back and forth by switching from Drive to Reverse can quickly overheat and damage an automatic transmission, although truck transmissions are a bit tougher. Don’t keep it up for very long!

Icy conditions It’s worth mentioning here that there’s just about no way to get decent traction after a storm leaves the roads coated with a sheet of ice. Even 4WD trucks don’t do well on ice, unless you’re using studded tires. If you really don’t have any choice but to get out on icy roads, keep your speed down (below 20 mph) and take all the driving tips mentioned above even more seriously. If you can barely stand up on icy pavement without slipping, you shouldn’t be driving on it, especially if there's black ice.

TLDR

Nobody really likes driving in wintertime. It’s stressful and it makes everything a lot tougher, but if you know what you’re doing and your car’s up to the task, it can at least be a bit safer. Just think about what we’ve talked about here, take your time, don’t get too nervous, and you’ll get from point A to point B just fine in winter weather.

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