According to the US Department of Transportation, more than 1,300 people are killed and over 116,800 are injured each year by auto accidents that occur on snowy, icy, or slushy roads.
And as more than 70% of the roadways in America are in regions subject to snow and other winter conditions, there’s a good chance anyone reading this could face the heightened dangers of winter driving.
Safe winter driving requires an abundance of caution, with defensive driving techniques employed and extra vigilance behind the wheel. Common sense practices — like never using a phone while driving and always wearing a seatbelt — are all the more important, while speeding and aggressive driving are especially dangerous.
Being an alert, defensive driver while on the road is critical for winter driving safety, but so too are the ways in which you prepare and care for your vehicle during the colder months. Depending on where you live and the types of roads on which you drive, winter driving may call for everything from different tires to different wiper blades to different fluids in the engine.
During the winter, it’s also a good idea to stock your car with a few specialty items that can help get you on the road faster first thing or get you out of a jam if you get stuck along the way.
Here are 10 tips for safer winter driving.
- Slow down and give yourself more space, so if you do lose control of the car, you have more time to recover.
If there’s one piece of advice that driving experts unanimously recommend you follow in the winter, it’s this: Slow down and back off.
Simply reducing speed and adding following distance when you are driving in winter conditions will dramatically reduce the likelihood of an accident. These basic safety measures help you maintain and regain control of your car, give you more time to prepare for dangerous patches of road — think ice, snow, curves, or damaged street surfaces — and, equally importantly, they put space between you and other drivers who may not be so cautious.
2. Calibrate your driving in your neighborhood or other low-traffic areas.
Woody Rogers, product information officer at Tire Rack, said that safe winter driving requires you to “slow down and plan ahead. Don’t let yourself be surprised by conditions or other drivers on the road ahead.” If you find your vehicle’s safety systems — like anti-lock brakes and traction control — regularly being engaged, then you are driving beyond the limits of safety.
“Calibrate yourself every time you start a drive through bad weather by testing the conditions as you leave the relative safety of your neighborhood or the parking lot,” Rogers said. “When traffic is clear and you have room to work, try slowing or stopping as quickly as you can without activating your antilock brakes, for example.”
- Proper vehicle maintenance is especially important during the winter. Make sure your tire pressure is correct, fluids are topped off, and your battery in proper working order.
Winter puts a strain on your vehicle, so you need to put even more effort into vehicle maintenance to make sure the car, truck, or SUV is in proper and safe working condition. Harry Haynes, a Pep Boys service manager, said failed car batteries can leave you stranded and improper tire inflation can lead to spinouts and wrecks.
“Once the temperature drops below 32 degrees, the air pressure in tires goes down and they’ll deflate some,” Haynes said.
To ensure you can maintain proper control of your vehicle during winter drives, Haynes recommends you check tire pressure “on a weekly basis.”
- Maintaining a safe driving speed doesn’t mean going at a snail’s pace — slowing down too much can create almost as much danger as driving too fast.
While of course driving at an unsafe high speed is the most dangerous thing you can in bad driving conditions, going too slowly is also more dangerous during the winter than in any other season.
“You don’t need to crawl along,” Rogers said. “That creates its own sorts of hazard for other drivers.”
Vehicles that are going too slowly risk being rear ended by or creating swerving hazards for drivers operating their vehicles at a normal speed. Driving too slowly is the most dangerous as you round blind curves.
- Make sure your tires are in good shape and consider investing in a set of winter tires — you can likely rely on them for several winter seasons.
You have to be aware of the traction limit of your tires given the road conditions, Rogers said.
“Once (antilock brakes) are activated you are at, or beyond, the traction limit of your tires,” he said.
He added you can increase your safety “by improving traction with better tires, preferably dedicated winter tires which are designed to deliver the best traction when winter weather is at its worst.”
Winter tires have larger gaps in their tread patterns than standard tires, improving traction on snow and ice, and are formulated with a softer, more malleable rubber compound, ensuring the maintain better grip even in subzero temperatures.
“The right tires for the conditions can transform an otherwise stressful, challenging drive into a liberated experience,” Rogers said.
- Know how to handle your vehicle in the event of a skid or a spinout and practice these techniques in a safe environment so you’re ready in the moment.
“You can steer your way out of trouble,” Rogers said. “If a slide does occur, don’t panic. Look for the escape route and steer towards it. Keep looking where you want to go, not at the obstacle you need to avoid.”
Also know where to drive to avoid the slipperiest conditions.
“Snowy roads and intersections often get packed down to a ‘two-track’ of darker, slippery snow or ice,” Rogers said. “Steering a little to one side where the snow is closer to pure white and is less packed usually increases traction somewhat.”
- Ensure you always have a clear view of the road, which will involve planning ahead.
From fog built up on the inside of your windshield to ice crusted on the exterior to poor headlights to an empty windshield wiper fluid reservoir, maintaining a clear view of the roadway during the winter is difficult yet critical.
Ensure your car’s heating and cooling systems are working properly so you can defog the windshield, keep an ice scraper handy to clear windows and windshields, and make sure your car’s wiper fluid reservoir is filled and the wiper blades are in good shape.
“You need to have your wiper blades replaced before winter hits,” Haynes said. “Once snow starts falling and there’s ice on the glass, blades get destroyed fast, so start with fresh wipers.”
Also make sure your headlights are clean and in good working order, and if your car has fog lights, inspect them and plan to use them. Headlights and high beams can be dangerous in heavy fog or snow, as the light reflects off the particles in the air and reduces your visual acuity.
- Give your vehicle extra time before you get on the road and build extra time into your commute.
Rick Ricart, president of Ricart Automotive Group, advises “caution on and off the road.”
“You need to have patience in the morning and let your car warm up and the engine expand. The cold won’t affect the car unless you’re fighting the cold,” he said.
“And while you’re on the road, give extra room between you and the other drivers. You can employ all the tips and tricks for safe driving but not everyone else will. Don’t let them ruin your day — give them room on the road.”
- Stock your car with tools and safety gear that will help you out in the event of a breakdown or accident, or if you get stuck in the snow.
Winter conditions compound the severity of potential accidents, breakdowns, or other automotive mishaps. You should keep a jacket, blanket, and gloves in your car in the event you find yourself stranded in the cold, and keep some sort of high visibility items, like reflectors, that you can deploy outside your stopped vehicle.
Beyond the basics like an ice scraper and the tools and supplies needed to change a tire or jump a dead battery, also consider snow chains and even a box of cat litter — when spread on packed snow or ice, litter can create the traction needed to get your vehicle unstuck and back on the go.
- Don’t stop unless you have to, especially when you are driving uphill.
According to AAA, one of the best ways to stay safe in wintry roads is to never stop “if you can avoid it.” This helps prevent skids and spinout. Go slow and anticipate upcoming obstacles and traffic lights.
The advice is especially important when driving uphill. Don’t stop going up a hill,” AAA recommends. “There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.”
The association also advises drivers to avoid giving the engine too much gas in snowy or icy hills, as it can cause the tires to lose traction and spin.