4 Key Tips For Safer Winter Driving
Think you know how to drive in snow and ice? Find out
When foul weather strikes, you’re always better off at home than on the road. But life doesn’t stop for snow and ice. If you must hit the road in the midst of a winter wallop, a few key moves may keep you out of the ditch.
Before you hit the road
First things first: Is your car up to the task? This checklist is a good way to find out. And if you live somewhere very snowy, you’re going to want to consider investing in a good pair of snow tires.
Otherwise, the condition of your tires can make a huge difference, says Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. All-season tires with a good deal of wear will perform worse in hazardous conditions no matter how good your driving skills; likewise, a well-worn snow tire will fare no better than an all-season.
Check your owner’s manual for recommendations on tire replacement. To find out how old your tires are, look at the DOT identification number on the sidewall; its last four digits are the week and year of manufacture. Also examine the tread, which should be no less than 1/16 of inch throughout the tire.
After you’ve given your tires a once-over, head out for a slippery-surface test drive. A large, empty parking lot serves well as a testing ground — but if you’re on a surface street, be extra sure there’s no one behind you. Accelerate, hit the break, and see how far you slide before the wheel locks up. This result is just a reference point for your car’s handling in nasty conditions, Cox says; its performance will change along with road conditions and the temperature.
Temperature fluctuations will affect your tires’ grip. Roads are slipperiest just above or below freezing, so you’ll generally be better off if it’s below freezing and getting colder. On the other hand, during a warm-up from below-freezing to above-freezing temps, things can get dicey, Cox says.
Research road conditions as best you can to plan a safe route before you hit the road. A news channel’s Twitter feed can prove useful at these times.
Drive safer, not slower
Once you’re out there, don’t assume slower driving is always better driving. “Someone’s who’s going too slow is just as much of a problem as someone going too fast,” Cox says. Instead, follow these tips.
1 Give yourself more time to stop. It takes four to 10 times longer to stop on slick roads. So instead of following the three-second rule (staying far enough behind the car in front of you to allow yourself three seconds to stop), give yourself 12 seconds or more. That means leaving eight to ten car lengths of space between you and the next guy, says Cox. And keep an eye peeled for shady spots — areas where otherwise clear roads might still be icy. Be prepared to slow down when you reach them.
2. Look further ahead. “One study showed that if drivers had just one second longer to react, 80 percent of accidents could be avoided,” notes Cox. “You can gain that one second by looking farther ahead.”
3. Speed up before a hill. If you encounter a hill on an icy or snowy street, building up some speed before you begin the climb may keep you going to the top. It’s a surer strategy than “trying to creep up and maintain momentum,” Cox says.
4. Handle skids with skill. If you start to skid, don’t panic. Keep both hands on the wheel with your eyes locked on where you want the car to go. If you’re driving straight and the car starts to spin out, steer “into the skid” (the direction the back of your car is turning toward) and accelerate just a tad to replant the back wheels. If you’re trying to turn and the car continues straight, you’re in a front-wheel skid, with your front wheels losing traction. Don’t brake or accelerate. Just straighten the steering wheel until you’re (hopefully) back on track.
Finally, always be prepared for the worst: Have warm clothing and footwear in case you get stranded and a shovel if you need to dig your car out. If you get stuck, your floor mats might come to the rescue: Pull them out, flip them upside down and put them under your tires for traction.