How to Drive in Snow
9 tips for reducing your risk of a crash in snowy and icy conditions
It's snowing, but you can't stay home and off the roads. Maybe your boss needs you at the office, you have to drive a sick relative to the doctor or you’ve run out of diapers. Do you know how to drive safely on the white stuff? Many people don't.
Poor weather and driving conditions account for almost one in three accidents and nearly 20 percent of all highway fatalities according to a study by the American Journal of Public Health. The first snowstorm of the season is particularly dangerous for drivers: You have a 14 percent greater chance of getting into a fatal accident than in subsequent storms, researchers at UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center found.
AAA and William Van Tassel, PhD, manager of driver training programs at AAA’s national office, says you can minimize your chance of an accident with these tips.
Even if your vehicle has the latest safety equipment such as traction control and auto braking, don’t depend on it to save the day. “Drive as if those are backups, so maintain good driving practices,” Van Tassel says. “If the [technology] intervenes, it's usually due to driver error.”
Related: 4 Key Tips for Safer Winter Driving
1. Drive slowly. Accelerating, stopping and turning all take longer on snow-covered roads. Snow cuts traction in half or more, Van Tassel says.
2. Accelerate and brake gradually. Don’t put the pedal to the metal and try to accelerate quickly, AAA advises. Slow acceleration and braking is the name of the game. Start slowing down well in advance of red lights and stop signs.
3. Keep your distance. You should be at least five to six seconds behind the car in front of you, Van Tassel says. To measure this, count slowly to five or six from the time that car passes a light pole until you pass it. Give your vehicle plenty of distance on all sides so you have time to respond if another vehicle is riding your tail or pulls out in front of you.
4. Look where you want to go. If you find yourself in a slide, Van Tassel says, focus your eyes on the direction you’re trying to go rather than steering into the slide (as most people were told in driver’s ed). “If your eyes are on target for the road ahead, your brain will automatically help your hands and feet do the work to get you there,” he says.
5. Gain some momentum before a hill. Try to speed up a little on flat ground before climbing a hill, and let that momentum carry you to the top. Then reduce your speed at the top of the hill and go down as slowly as possible, according to AAA.
6. Watch for drivers with ice- or snow-laden roofs. The chunks can blow off and block your vision or even come crashing onto your car or through a windshield.
7. Consider buying snow tires. “Modern snow tires can have incredible traction on snow and icy surfaces,” Van Tassel says. “It's just amazing. But that involves having two sets of tires.” If you can’t afford both, Van Tassel says all-season radial tires with good treads (at least 4/32nds of an inch but ideally more) are a good second choice.
8. Be wary of every driver around you. “It's wise to assume that the other driver will take the action that puts you at the most risk,” Van Tassel says. “Mentally you should be playing the ‘what if?’ game so your brain is prepared to skip the decision-making process and you can take the right action if you need to.“
9. Don't stop if you can avoid it. It's easier to accelerate when you're still rolling than when you're stopped. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it, especially on a hill.
It’s not just how you drive
There are other things you can do to make sure a snowy trek on the roads doesn’t end in a mishap. For example, winterize your car. Check the fluids, test the battery, change your windshield wiper blades and make sure you have a spare tire in the trunk.
Stock an emergency kit for your car with a flashlight, batteries, blankets, gloves, warm clothing, foldable snow shovel, ice scraper, jumper cables and food and water in case you break down. Carry a traction mat or kitty litter in case you get stuck. Make sure your cellphone is charged (or carry a phone charger) so you can call for help.
Related: SafeBee’s Top Winter Safety Tips