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Winter Driving Tips & Tricks

I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

Blizzard of 1977 (public domain)

Blizzard of 1977 (public domain)

Quick Tips for Driving in Snow and Ice

  1. Drive slower.
  2. Brake earlier.
  3. Use alternative methods to slow down like downshifting and decelerating naturally.
  4. Try to apply brakes while going straight, especially before entering a turn.
  5. Stay as far away from other drivers as you can.
  6. Never tailgate.
  7. Check your tires before driving in bad weather.
  8. When using your brakes, gently apply pressure instead of pressing hard and locking the wheels.
  9. If you start to slide, take your foot off the accelerator and straighten your wheels.

Brakers and Fakers

I was driving down a highway back to my house in the dark. It was the middle of winter and it had just snowed about 6 inches. Temperatures were down around 10F. The roads were cold, but generally clear with patches of snow and ice here and there. I had driven the opposite way earlier in the day and found the roads to be decent. Driving back about 10 hours later, the roads were still perfectly passable. Although I could tell others were nervous driving, I had no fear. That's because I understand most of the important concepts for driving safely on snowy and icy roads.

As I drove along this stretch of highway, I came upon a common, yet frustrating site: A driver going too slowly. He hit his brakes every few seconds, presumably to test whether the roads were icy or not. This driver was in a 4x4 no less (not that it matters). My reaction was to maneuver my car in whatever direction to get by this person as fast as possible.

Is there something in your way? If not, if you're a lone driver in snowy or icy conditions hitting your brakes is about the last thing you want to do. There are many other ways to slow down. For instance, try taking your foot off the accelerator or downshifting. These are preferable to hitting the brakes. Hitting the brakes unnecessarily risks making one's driving situation a whole lot worse.


Going Nowhere Fast

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I just saw this happening this morning. It happens all the time. It was minus eleven outside. So, the roads were icy. A woman in a front-wheel drive car stopped at a stop sign. She then attempted to accelerate, only her tires simply spun.

So what did she do? What should she have done? And what do you do in this situation?

In this case, the woman press hard on the accelerator. That spun her tires as fast as possible with as much torque as possible. Maybe she was trying to melt the ice below and hit some pavement eventually - I don't know. Whatever her reasoning, it was the exact opposite of what works. It's fairly amazing that people don't understand the basics of physics of driving.

I won't attempt to impart a science lesson here. But suffice it to say that when on snow or ice, particularly in cars with front wheel or rear wheel drive, you want to accelerate slowly. Accelerate very slowly in order to give your tires the opportunity to grip. The more you apply the gas, the less able your tires are going to be to grip whatever surface they're on. Gentle acceleration is best in this situation as you build up momentum. That makes it easier for your car to move forward.

Do You Know What ABS is?

ABS or "Anti-Lock Braking System" is a feature that comes on most cars. Actually, I think it comes on all cars now. That wasn't always the case. Unfortunately, many people don't know what it is or how to use it. Locking your brakes on icy roads is dangerous. ABS basically pumps the brakes for you so that your brakes don't lock. And you don't have to manually pump them. When you hit your brakes and your car encounters ice, you feel the brakes pulsate.

So if you have ABS and you're still pumping your brakes on snowy roads, you're doing it wrong.

Good Tires and Emergency Equipment

There's no substitute for a good set of tires. Likewise, there's not much you can do driving in snow and ice if your tires are bald.

I have a good story from when I visited New Zealand.

I was on an adventure vacation that involved touring the southern island and doing a lot of hiking. We spent two days in Queenstown, which is basically the island's version of Vail except that you can go bungie jumping every five feet or ride a hovercraft or any number of crazy things.

Anyway, our guide was driving us somewhere and the weather quickly changed from dry roads to snowy roads and our van began losing traction and he could no longer advance up the steep road. Lucky for us, he had chains with him. He pulled over and put chains on the van's rear wheels.

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There was only one problem.

The van was front-wheel drive. I quickly realized the problem and brought it to his attention. For a moment, he insisted that he was pretty sure he should put the chains on the rear wheels. After a few minutes of arguing, I said that I was from Colorado and knew what I was doing and to put the chains on the front wheels.

Lesson: it's good to have emergency equipment, but it's no good if you don't know what to do with it.



Negotiating a Curve and Going Straight

So let's just give a real quick, good lesson about driving on snow and ice while turning. In most situations where you feel your car start to slide, take your foot off the gas. Then do little else as the car's tires grip the road.

Aside from braking too hard and trying to stop too fast, turning is where people lose traction the most often. This is because the momentum of the car is going one way and you are trying to get the car to go the other. Think of it this way, if you are going straight and encounter a curve that will take you left ninety degrees and that curve is all black ice, your car will simply keep going straight and will go off the road. Make sense?

This is effectively the problem you encounter on snow and ice while navigating a curve. You are trying to get your car to go one way and the physics of your car want to take it in another. Your ability to get your car to do this is dependent on the amount of traction you are getting, which itself is dependent on the quality of your tires and the speed you are going when you enter the turn relative to the amount of traction you are getting. The higher the speed, the less traction when you start the turn.

Stay Away from Other People

This is really my favorite piece of advice. That's because it works for all driving conditions, good and bad.

Stay away from other drivers!

Staying as far away from other drivers gives you the best chance to avoid accidents. When that other driver does something incredibly stupid, you're not there. This advice works for cold weather, warm weather, any weather. It works whether your drive in the snow or are just commuting. Avoiding other drivers by keeping your car as far away as you can from their car will always serve you well.

Drive Slower. Brake Sooner.

And let's not forget the obvious. If you're on snow and ice, drive more slowly. Just because everybody else is going too fast doesn't mean you have to go too fast. And slow down lots sooner. In other words, use your brakes earlier than normal. That's what I'm writing about when I write to gently apply pressure. You can avoid sliding if your tires are rolling by applying gentle pressure to your brakes. Of course, this might require you to start braking ten times sooner than normal, but so what?

Finally, sometimes there's nothing you can do. If you hit a patch of black ice and there's simply no friction between your tires and the road, you're going to slide.

However, if you use some of the recommendations I've listed here, you'll be a lot less likely to hurt yourself or your car.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Allen Donald


Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 11, 2014:

You really do know how to drive on ice. I hope that people will read your hub and take this advice. We have a lot of problems with black ice here in Arkansas, but I won't use chains anymore because I ruined my fenders years ago when some chains broke. I just stay home because I live on a hilltop and sometimes even a 4-wheel dr. won't make the curve .

Now if I could just learn to walk on ice. I fell on the parking lot at work the day after New Years and broke my leg. Now I don't have to worry about driving on ice. Voted you up.

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