Winter is in full swing, and in many areas of the country, the cold weather is having an adverse effect on driving conditions. The United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration states that annually, an average of 22 percent of vehicle accidents are related to the weather. This amounts to almost 1.3 million accidents each year.
Snow, ice, and the impacts low temperatures can have on a vehicle make winter driving especially hazardous. Even regions typically associated with warm weather are not immune to the occasional, out-of-the-ordinary freeze. Whether you drive for work, to work, or just on errands, following these tips can save your life.
Prepare Your Vehicle
Much of safety is a matter of being proactive. While regular vehicle maintenance is crucial year round, it’s especially prudent during the winter when roads are icy. System and/or component failures increase safety risks dramatically. Long-haul drivers need to take special care inspecting their vehicles before beginning a trip; becoming stranded in the middle of nowhere in below-freezing temperatures is incredibly dangerous.
Remove all snow and ice from essential areas of your car. Clean the headlights, windows, mirrors, wheel wells, and forward and rear sensors. Where snow is concerned, clear off the hood and the top of the vehicle as well. Snow from your hood can blow up over your windshield and obstruct vision, and snow from the top of your car can blow back and do the same to drivers behind you.
Check your tires. It’s a good idea to have a spare set of winter tires on hand. Inspect the tread, and be sure the tires are inflated properly. Fluctuations in temperature can cause tires to expand and contract, ultimately leading to a loss of air pressure. Your state may have laws in place regarding the use of tire chains, including permitted timeframes and recommendations. A good set of winter-specific tires can be just as (if not more) effective as chains, but having a set of chains in the trunk can help with traction if you get stuck in the snow.
Inspect systems and fluid levels. Check the lights, exhaust system, heat and defrosting systems, brakes, and antifreeze. It’s a good idea to use a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water to prevent freezing. Be sure your oil changes are on schedule – it can’t hurt to get it changed early if winter sets in before the next one is scheduled. Test your battery, and replace it if it’s more than 3 years old. Replace your windshield wipers if necessary; between snow and road salt, your windshield may get dirty several times in one short trip. The fuller you keep your gas tank, the better to prevent frozen gas lines in low temperatures.
Warming Your Car: If you don’t have a modern, fuel-injected car and need to idle it for a short time before driving it in the cold, do not do it in an enclosed space such as a garage. Carbon monoxide can build up quickly and lead to poisoning. In fact, you should avoid leaving your car running in any attached garage, even if the door is open, as the carbon monoxide can still find its way into your home.
Check the weather! So much hassle can be prevented by simply knowing what to expect ahead of a time. Always keep an eye on the weather forecast the night before, and plan accordingly.
Consider alternatives. In the case of extreme weather conditions, such as incredibly low temperatures and snow storms, you might be better off avoiding driving altogether. If it’s just a commute to work or an errand, taking advantage of public transit or other rideshare services which minimize the number of drivers on the road can be a safer bet.
Always be ready for an emergency. Even if your vehicle is in top condition, there is always the possibility of a breakdown. You can be the safest driver around, and another driver’s unsafe habits can still put you at risk of a collision. Being stranded in cold weather can go from annoying to life-threatening very quickly so being prepared is non-negotiable. Always keep your vehicle stocked with jumper cables (portable jump starters are preferable, if possible), a snow brush and ice scraper, flares or emergency lights, sand or kitty litter, blankets, a flashlight, a first aid kit, and a cell phone. If you’re expecting a long trip through rural areas where help may take a long time to arrive, include food and water.
If you do break down, especially in extremely low temperatures, it’s best to stay in your car while you wait for assistance. You can run the car heater for 10 minutes per hour, but check the exhaust pipe to ensure it’s free of snow or other obstructions to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Even during the 10 minutes of heating, you should crack your window to prevent buildup.
Drive with Safety in Mind
- Keep in mind that speed limits are meant for ideal driving conditions, which do not include snow and ice. Adjust your speed and following distance for current conditions and visibility.
- When roads are slippery, it may take more time and distance to come to a stop. Brake earlier than you normally would. This goes double for larger vehicles, which are heavier and require a greater stopping distance than smaller cars. Additionally, be wary of becoming overconfident in a 4×4’s capabilities, as they still require sufficient time and distance to come to a safe stop.
- Watch out for bridges! Because they are open underneath, they’re quicker to freeze. Bridges are often the first areas of roadway to become covered by ice or black ice (ice which does not appear shiny and is essentially camouflaged by the black asphalt).
- In snow and below-freezing temperatures, avoid using cruise control. The road may look clear, but can become slippery unexpectedly.
- If your car slides, don’t slam on the brakes. This can cause you to quickly lose control. Instead, let go of the brakes and turn your wheel in the opposite direction in which your front end is moving. Do not panic or overreact, which will make the spin worse.
- When driving up a snowy hill, get some inertia going ahead of a time – enough to help you ride to the top while maintaining the same speed. Pressing the gas hard while going uphill can cause your tires to spin wildly and get stuck in the snow. If it’s slippery, a situation like this might lead to sliding back down the hill and putting yourself and others at risk.