When snow and ice roll in, driving gets more difficult – even for the most experienced drivers. Although many parts of the United States don’t experience snowstorms, cold and freezing temperatures can affect how your car works.
Ready Your Vehicle
The first step to safe winter driving is ensuring your car is ready for the season.
Before colder temperatures arrive:
- Check for recalls (your car may have a critical safety issue that needs to be repaired)
- Make sure your battery is charged and working well
- Fill up your gas tank (and keep it full or close to full)
- Plug in hybrid and electric vehicles whenever they are not in use
- Change your oil filter and consider a winter oil change (some manufacturers recommend thinner motor oil in the winter because cold weather makes oil thicker)
- Examine your belts and hoses
- Get your brakes inspected at the start of and midway through the season (and fill up with brake fluid formulated for the winter)
- Make sure your wiper fluid contains antifreeze (and purchase new wiper blades if you need them)
- Have tools (like a snow brush and scraper) to keep your windshield and windows clear
- Keep your tires properly inflated and check that they have good tread depth (you may also want to rotate your tires and invest in winter tires or snow chains)
- Check your exhaust pipe (a blocked pipe could cause toxic carbon monoxide leaks)
- Keep an emergency kit in your trunk (include – at the minimum – a snow shovel, a bag of salt or kitty litter, a blanket, snacks, and a bottle of water)
If you are expecting snow and ice, you should also understand how your vehicle behaves in these conditions. Try to find a large, empty, snowy parking lot to test out features like anti-lock brakes and all-weather tires. Practice stopping, starting, and turning to get a feel for how your car drives in the snow or ice.
Plan Your Trip
Whether you’re planning a road trip or a trip across town, use common sense. Give yourself plenty of extra time to arrive at your destination and check the weather before you go out. If there’s a blizzard, you may need to cancel your appointment or stay home from work, and if there’s any severe weather on a road trip route, you may want to change your travel plans.
In winter weather conditions, staying home is the safest bet. If you do go out, let someone you love know where you’re going and when you expect to arrive.
Before You Head Out
Many people prefer to warm up their cars before they head out for a chilly drive, but you should never start your vehicle in an enclosed area, like a garage. To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, simply pull your car out of the garage and into the driveway before giving it time to get warm.
Bring your phone along on any journey you take, along with a full charge and a car charger. You never know when you’ll have an emergency, you can let people know if you’re running late, and you can call for help if you need it. Nevertheless, try to keep your phone in the glove compartment or out of sight while driving, as it can be a deadly distraction – the last thing you need while dealing with winter road conditions.
Whenever there is snow or ice on the road, slow down. Allow more space between yourself and other vehicles so you have more time to recover if you lose control of your car. Try to drive slow enough for conditions but fast enough that you don’t interrupt the flow of traffic. Accelerate and decelerate slowly to maintain traction and avoid skids. If you do skid, steer into the skid until you regain control of your vehicle and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
Keeping momentum is better than stopping and accelerating, so if you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do so instead of stopping for the light. You should also exercise caution on hills – build inertia before taking on an uphill stretch of road and do not stop midway up a hill if you can avoid it. Instead, reduce your speed at the top of a hill and proceed downhill slowly. You should also drive carefully on bridges, lesser-used roads, and roads that are not exposed to sunlight, as they may be icy even if other areas are not.
Although keeping a constant speed is ideal for winter driving conditions, do not use cruise control. You need to be 100% focused and 100% in control of your vehicle at all times. Avoid risky driving behaviors like speeding, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or using your mobile phone behind the wheel.
Keep an eye out for large vehicles like snowplows, which need extra space, and be alert to animals near the roadways.
Remember that safe driving is a year-round endeavor. Always buckle up and make sure children are in age- and size-appropriate child seats.
Bonus: Tips for Getting Stuck in the Snow and Dealing with Accidents
The weather can be unpredictable, and you might find yourself stranded in a storm.
If you get stuck in the snow:
- Make sure you and your car are in a safe space
- Stay with your car at all times (do not try to walk and get help)
- Keep the exhaust pipe clear
- Conserve your heat and energy
- Call for help if you have cell service
- Signal distress by keeping your dome light on and tying a brightly colored piece of cloth to your antenna (or tucking it at the top of a rolled-up window)
- Stay tuned to the radio or GPS for updates about the storm and emergency responses
- Run your car sporadically to conserve fuel (let the heater run just long enough to rid yourself of chill)
- Bundle up to keep warm
- Wait for help to arrive – someone will come!
Unfortunately, storms are far from the biggest risk when driving in the winter. If you are injured by a negligent driver, you may be entitled to compensation. While no amount of money can change what happened, having the right resources is essential for coping with the aftermath of an accident.