Winter Driving Tips: How to Stay Safe During Snow & Icy Weather Conditions
Snowy and icy road conditions affect about 85% of the United States each year. It is a significant cause of automobile accidents and can turn a short commute into an hour-long adventure. Even the most seasoned cold weather drivers will find blowing and drifting snow and slick, icy roads challenging. Those who haven't previously experienced the conditions (if you've just moved to Boulder, for instance) can find them paralyzing.
Those who have lived in areas that experience snow and ice for some time may have a kind of sixth sense for knowing when to limit travel during these conditions. However, when driving is necessary, there are some winter driving tips that can better keep you and your family safe, on the road, and headed in the right direction. Those who live in cabins near the mountain need to take special care during freezing weather—especially if they want to drive to experience some of Boulder's outdoor activities. If precautions aren't taken, a drive to the store can turn into an off-road experience requiring the services of a tow-truck. There are few more unnerving driving experiences like losing control of a vehicle in snowy or icy road conditions.
If you're new to an area that experiences a significant amount of snow and ice, or simply want to brush up on your best practices, this page is for you. Our Winter Driving Tips Guide starts with what you should know before you depart in the winter and what you should have in your car. We will explore warning signs and the importance of a properly serviced car. You'll know how to better protect yourself and your loved ones when experiencing diverse winter driving conditions.
This guide will alert you to potential danger zones and offer a series of safe driving tips involving speed and distance, the importance of keeping your car rolling and why snow tires can help. Our guide includes tips on maintaining good visibility, keeping your exhaust pipes clear of snow and even on preparing for the worst. You'll understand the dangers of black ice and how to drive on icy roads. Drivers will have a much better idea of how to control a slide should one occur and what to do in the event of an accident.
Winter can be white-knuckle driving season. Here are our winter/icy road driving tips to help build your confidence and keep your family safer in less-than-ideal winter driving conditions.
Table of Contents
- Before You Depart
- Be Aware of Danger Zones
- Snow Driving Tips
- Long Distance Driving Tips
- How To Drive On Ice
- How to Correct a Slide
- If You Have an Accident
- Stay Safe
Before You Depart
Being prepared before you depart is almost as important as how you perform on the winter roads. A car and driver who are not prepared for snowy and icy driving conditions can add to the dangers of the road in the winter. Heading into the winter driving season, your car should be stocked with certain materials. You will want to ensure your car is properly serviced and ready for winter driving. You'll also want to be aware of the dangers and warning signs of dangerous driving conditions to keep you and your loved ones safer.
Materials to Have on Hand
Getting prepared for winter driving starts with making sure your vehicle has the necessary materials you may need throughout the season. Just like the tools every homeowner should have, every driver in an area that experiences snow should have their own set of tools. Here are some materials you should have in your car before winter weather arrives.
- Ice scraper – This is invaluable in removing ice from windows before heading out on the road.
- Small broom – This will help remove loose snow from the top and hood of your car. This will prevent it from blowing into your line of sight or flying onto the vehicle behind you.
- Snow shovel – Even a compact snow shovel can be invaluable should you get stuck in the snow.
- Bag of rock salt, sand, or gravel – This will not only add some weight to your vehicle, but it can also be spread to help tires spinning on ice or snow gain traction.
- Jumper cable – Cold weather can quickly drain power, especially from older car batteries. Jumper cables can help your car get a “jump” from the battery of another nearby vehicle.
For longer distance trips, you'll want to make sure your car has blankets, a spare cellphone charger, an emergency kit and a full tank of gas.
There are warning signs to look for in anticipation of hazardous winter driving conditions. You can stay connected with some of these by always being aware of the current weather forecast, and that of your destination when traveling distances. There are also some common-sense signs to be aware of. Temperatures hovering around the 32-degree mark, for example, can lead to a nasty mix of rain, ice, and snow. Watch for when the snow starts to accumulate on the surfaces on your vehicle. Windy conditions can be a warning sign of travel issues, especially when combined with rain, sleet or snow. You, of course, should always be aware that winter driving means more driving in darkness, which can add to the potentially dangerous driving conditions.
Get Your Car Serviced
Another key component to staying safe when driving in winter weather conditions is making sure your car is properly serviced and ready to go.
- Tires should have significant tread and not show signs of uneven wear.
- Make sure all interior and exterior lights are in proper working condition.
- Have your battery and alternator checked. Most major auto parts stores offer free tests of these systems.
- Check for recalls. The internet makes it easier than ever to see if your vehicle has any outstanding recalls from the manufacturer.
- Have your exhaust system checked to make sure there are no potentially dangerous leaks.
- Worn brakes can make slippery roads even more dangerous. Have your brakes inspected before snowy and icy weather arrives.
It is also important for drivers to fully understand their vehicles. They should be able to locate on and off controls for lights, bright lights, wipers, and emergency flashers. This is important when driving a newly acquired vehicle, borrowing a vehicle, or renting one.
Protect Yourself and Loved Ones
One of the simplest ways to protect you and your loved ones is to make sure everyone is ready to travel in less-than-ideal conditions. Of course, you'll want to make sure seat belts and harnesses are used properly and child seats are safely secured. Adding a dash cam that can help with visiblity is always a good idea and while driving in snowy and icy conditions can add to the stress level, so you'll want to keep noise inside the car to a minimum. It is particularly important there are no driver distractions in inclement winter weather.
Be Aware of Danger Zones
Snow-covered or icy roads can be dangerous anywhere; however, certain areas are more prone to hazardous conditions in the winter. These danger zones include:
- Bridges and overpasses. We've all seen the signs “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface”. The reason for this is cold air circulates above and below bridges and overpasses, creating a colder surface for the rain to freeze. While a road may simply be wet, a bridge on that road could be slick and icy. Avoid suddenly accelerating on bridges when wet.
- Freeways and interstates. The higher the speed, the more risk there is of a car sliding in snowy conditions. Right-hand lanes are usually more traveled on freeways and will maintain their grip better. Be extra cautious when using passing lanes, which may more likely to be covered in snow.
- Mountains and hills. Steep hills and mountains can be difficult to navigate in snow and ice. Accelerating up a hill can be challenging as the tires struggle to maintain contact with the road surface. When driving down a hill, braking can be difficult for the same reason. Be particularly cautious when driving near large semi trucks up and down steep grades.
- Curves. The tighter the turn or curve, the more likely it is for a car to “fishtail”. This is when a car's rear end loses contact with the road, sliding toward the inside of a curve.
- Roads that are less traveled. Infrequently traveled roads are a problem in the snow because the lanes themselves can be difficult to discern. Because the snow hasn't been compacted, it can be challenging to “plow” through several inches of snow while maintaining steering control.
- Tunnels. These can be a challenge in winter conditions for several reasons. In subfreezing conditions, there may be water runoff or seepage in a tunnel even though there may be no precipitation outside the tunnel. This can cause slippery conditions. It is also not uncommon for the weather to be dramatically different on either side of a mountain. This can mean driving conditions are drastically different when entering and leaving a mountain tunnel. Be prepared for such changes, and drive cautiously when exiting.
- Brick roads. By design, brick roads usually have lower speed limits than asphalt or concrete roadways. The spaces between bricks can allow the bricks to become colder than traditional road surfaces, allowing them to freeze faster. Even at these slower speeds, brick and cobblestone roads can be unexpectedly slick.
Knowing these danger zones can help drivers better prepare for the diverse challenges they often provide.
Snow Driving Tips
Driving in snow offers a myriad of challenges involving impaired vision, “plowing” resistance, getting caught in the existing tire tracks and the slippery conditions often present. There are some fundamentals to driving more safely in snow - tips like simply slowing down and increasing patience and drive times. Drivers should learn to increase the space between vehicles and the importance of keeping a car rolling to prevent getting stuck in the snow. They should understand the limits to all four-wheel-drive vehicles, especially in icy conditions. In this section, we will learn if snow tires can be valuable in snowy conditions and what to do should a worst-case scenario occur.
One of the critical elements of driving safely in snowy conditions is to slow down. Even drivers who are experienced in driving on snow-covered roads can experience problems if they do not slow down to adjust to road conditions. Slowing your traveling speed gives you more control of a vehicle, and provides more recovery time if a car does begin to slide. Less speed helps you stop a vehicle quicker in adverse conditions and allows for greater control when making turns. A slower, consistent acceleration permits tires to gain a better grip, providing more control.
When you slow down, you are better equipped to handle any unexpected events that may occur ahead of you, like another driver losing control. Most of all, if an incident should occur at slower speeds, it will be less damaging for the vehicle and occupants than one occurring at higher speeds.
Safe Driving Distance
There have been a couple of ways to determine what is a “safe driving distance” between a vehicle you are in and the one in front of you. It should be a car length for every 10 mph you are traveling. For example, a vehicle traveling at 40 mph should have a 4-car length safe driving distance from the one in front. In addition, distance should be measured in time and 2-3 seconds should be allowed for stopping behind the car you are traveling behind. Both of these rules, however, are based on dry driving conditions.
A safe driving distance in snow or icy conditions should be much further, perhaps three to four times as much. The key to a safe driving distance is to keep in mind the more time you have, the better. This is particularly true in the unpredictable conditions of snowy or icy roads.
Be Careful with All-Wheel and Four-Wheel Drive
Those who drive all- or four-wheel-drive vehicles can enjoy better road grip in both snowy and icy road conditions; however, this too can lead to issues. Even four-wheel-drive vehicles will experience poorer grip in ice and snow than in dry conditions. All-wheel drive can also lead to a false sense of security when driving on roads in poor condition. Drivers may overtake slower-paced two-wheel-drive vehicles, causing too wide of a disparity in driving speeds. While even on extremely icy conditions, four-wheel-drive vehicles maintain better control than two-wheel drive, they can still easily experience sliding and/or loss of control.
Two of the major issues with icy and snowy road conditions are stopping and accelerating. Acceleration can cause wheel spin and sliding. Stopping can cause sliding and slipping. In extremely snowy or icy conditions, it can be best to avoid both. Anticipating traffic light changes can be very beneficial is staying moving, even if it means slowing down in anticipation of a light change. When traveling up an unplowed road or driveway, it is best to keep a slow steady speed than to stop. Keeping rolling maintains your momentum. It's important to stay vigilent while driving for any unexpected snow or ice. The city of Longmont does a great job of controlling snow and ice, but it is still helpful to keep an eye out in case conditions change quickly.
In instances where snow is bumper high or higher, it can help your car act as a plow to move through the snow. When you stop, however, the odds of getting stuck increase. “Keep rolling” is a good rule of thumb to avoid getting stuck in snow and ice.
Consider Snow Tires
Snow tires used to be commonplace, especially in the Northern United States. Drivers would change to snow tires in the fall in anticipation of snowy roads. These tires had bigger, deep tread patterns with better grip in the snow. Unfortunately, they would create an annoying humming sound in dry conditions. With the advent of “all-season” tires, most drivers no longer make the change.
For those living in heavily snow-prone areas, snow tires can still make sense, especially for rear-wheel-drive vehicles. It is estimated that about 50% of Canadian drivers make use of snow tires with exceptional results. In fact, multiple provinces require the use of these special-use tires. Use is much lower in the U.S., but this does not mean snow tires don't have their advantages.
For those living in places that experience many days of snow and those with a significant amount of steep hills or mountains, mounting snow tires can be a valuable addition to your winter car care preparedness routine.
Prepare for Every Scenario
In some cases, in severe weather particularly, it is best to be prepared for the worst. The worst may mean staying home or even being snowed in. The worst could be complete road closings and law enforcement advisories to stay off the roads. Preparing for the worst means stocking up on groceries at the approach of a winter snow or ice storm, and even, perhaps, being ready for the loss of power.
For your car, it means keeping a full tank of gas and making sure it is stocked with supplies, should you become stuck on the road. The supplies should include blankets, a candle, flashlight, back up batteries and cellphone batteries, water and maybe even some snacks or granola bars. You may think you may never get snowed in or become stuck on an isolated road, but it is always better to be prepared for the worst.
Check the Exhaust
When considering safe winter and icy road conditions, one may not realize the importance of having a clear pathway for the exhaust system to diffuse engine gasses. A car that may slide into a snowbank or is parked in a snowdrift can have the exhaust system clogged by snow or ice. This snow or ice can prevent these gasses from being disbursed into the air properly and instead, find themselves in the interior of the car.
There are multiple instances when this can be dangerous. If you should slide off the road, for example, and want to keep your car running to provide heat, the snow may become packed into the exhaust pipe or otherwise stop it from venting properly. This can cause the back up of dangerous fumes into the vehicle cabin.
If an exhaust system is rusting or loose, it can be more easily susceptible to leaks, even with mildly compacted snow. Have your exhaust system checked and make sure snow or ice isn't prohibiting the flow of exhaust fumes when your vehicle is running.
Visibility is one of the most underrated aspects of safe driving in winter/icy conditions. Cleaning snow and ice from your vehicle to provide sufficient vision may have to be done in cold, freezing and wet conditions. This causes many of us to take minimal steps to clear our vehicles before hitting the road. This can be extremely dangerous. Here are some tips to improve your vision before heading out on snowy or icy roadways.
- Keep the wiper fluid container filled with washing fluid that won't freeze. A passing car or truck that slings slush on your windshield when passing can create serious problems. Having sufficient window washer fluid that doesn't freeze can be invaluable in such situations. Keep your washer fluid tank full through the winter.
- Change windshield wipers. Wipers will deteriorate over time from wear and the elements. Inspect your wiper blades and change them when they show signs of streaking. Wipers are easy to change or many auto parts stores will change them free with purchase.
- Clear your windows of snow thoroughly. Clear ice and snow from all windows before heading out on the road. This includes side and rear windows. When windows are clear at the start, it helps the heat of the interior of the car maintain clarity as snow or ice continues to fall. Clear rear mirrors and rearview cameras of ice and snow as well.
- Remove snow from vehicle surfaces. If you clear all windows of snow but don't brush the snow from the hood or roof, the snow will easily impair vision once hitting the road. It is well worth the time to use a snow brush to clear all the snow from your vehicle.
- Clear lights from snow. Snow on headlights and taillights can prevent you from seeing better and inhibit other drivers from seeing you. Take a moment to make sure all exterior lights are clear of snow.
- Restore or replace headlight covers. Car and truck headlight covers can become foggy due to small road chips and chemicals. In many circumstances, these headlights can be buffed and restored to clarity. In extreme cases, they may need to be replaced. Cleaning or replacement will improve visibility and the appearance of your vehicle.
Long Distance Driving Tips
Long trips will take extra precaution and preparation in extreme winter weather. You will first want to get a handle on the weather for your trip, including any precipitation you may encounter along the way. In some cases, you may be able to avoid mountains or passes that may experience tougher driving conditions. Check and keep an eye on driving conditions both at the start, during and at your destination. It is also very important you take along supplies that could aid in case you should become stranded along the highway.
Materials to Bring
Make sure your car is properly stocked with emergency materials, including blankets, abrasive materials, jumper cables, back up cellphone batteries and snacks. You'll also want to bring along any medications that may be required on your trip. Take copies of prescriptions and insurance papers. Make sure your vehicle has a supply of water and non-perishable food. Keep the fuel tank as full as possible at all times. If you are driving with a pet, make accommodations for their medical and eating needs. Try to make sure they get exercise along your journey.
Plan Your Route
When traveling greater distances in winter weather, it can be helpful to plan your route accordingly. This is a good example of when the shortest route may not be the best. In fact, a longer, well-planned route may take less overall time and be safer. There are frequently winter weather systems that can leave several inches of snow in one area and either a dusting or negligible snow just a few miles away. Temperature changes can mean one route is covered in ice while another is just wet. Where weather generally moves west to east, winds are more likely to cause drifts on north-south roadways.
You may want to plan a route around mountain roads. Keep in mind, safety crews will focus first on highly traveled roads after a cold-weather event. This means the main roadways and freeways may be a better choice than rural routes after a heavy snow or in icy conditions. Check the weather, radar and plan your route accordingly.
Other Helpful Tips
There are several other tips to keep in mind when traveling distances in snow and ice.
- Let a family member or friend know of your travels and the route you expect to take.
- Stay in touch with the weather forecast.
- Because of the engine placement, front-wheel-drive vehicles have a better grip than rear-wheel-drive vehicles.
- Avoid driving when tired.
- Limit the use of or avoid cruise control all-together in inclement weather.
- Keep tires clear of snow and ice packed under wheel wells, especially front wheels used for steering.
- Ice can build up on windshield wipers. If your wipers begin to streak, it can be worthwhile to stop to knock the ice off the wipers' rubber edges.
- Don't race the GPS. Your estimated time of arrival will be later in snowy and icy weather than weather that is clear and dry. Don't try to keep up with the ETA on your GPS.
How To Drive On Ice
Driving on ice is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes, however, it simply can't be averted. There may be commitments that need to be kept or emergencies may occur. It could be that you simply come across icy conditions along your routine travels. Driving on ice takes a great deal of caution and patience, and you should be prepared if you begin to lose road contact. Drivers should have an understanding of what black ice is and how to handle it. It can be easy to panic when coming across icy road conditions, but a calm, steady approach will serve you best.
What to Do
Roads heavily iced from freezing rain or snow and water that has frozen over can be dangerous, so it is often best to simply park and wait for road crews to spread abrasive materials or until temperatures rise. Icy roads will frequently result in multiple vehicle collisions or cars skidding off the road. Take a clue from the semi-truck drivers along the road and park in a rest area or elsewhere. Even pulling off to the side of the road isn't safe, as sliding cars could impact yours.
When encountering ice, avoid harsh acceleration or braking, as this could cause complete loss of tire traction. If the roadway allows, keep steering wheels straight and slow down until you feel you have control. Slowly accelerate to continue once you feel you may have reached a safer speed.
The most dangerous form of road ice is what is called “black ice”. Black ice is a thin layer of frozen water with few oxygen bubbles. This makes it nearly perfectly clear. Because it is clear, it takes on the color of the roadway, in the case of asphalt, black. Black ice can form in several ways. It frequently occurs when the road surface temperature is colder than the air temperature. In this situation, rain will freeze when coming in contact with the colder road, forming black ice. It also can form on bridges and overpasses and when there is a sudden drop in temperatures. Imagine driving on what is a wet roadway that suddenly turns to ice.
Black ice is extremely difficult to see visually, especially at night. The best way to know if black ice may be present is if roadways are wet and temperatures are approaching freezing. Many of today's vehicles include a temperature gauge, which can be invaluable. When driving on wet roadways and temperatures drop from 34 to 33 degrees, you are getting in the black ice danger zone. Black ice will form at 32 degrees. You may also be able to detect black ice if you do not notice water spray from the car tires of those around you. You may also notice or feel ice forming on the front of your outside side-view mirrors.
The aftermath of a black ice event can look like a demolition derby. Cars can be involved in multiple-vehicle accidents and medians and road shoulders can be littered with cars. When encountering black ice, remain calm and decelerate without slamming on the brakes. Come to a slow driving speed and safely seek a place to park, well off the roadway. Some have described the best way to approach driving on black ice is to drive in slow motion, with no sudden moves. Black ice can make traveling downhill treacherous and driving uphill nearly impossible.
How to Correct a Slide
Sliding or fishtailing is usually the result of excessive speed for the road conditions. It can frequently be avoided by not accelerating, braking or turning too suddenly. This can be difficult because these are all counter-intuitive. When a slide begins to occur, here are three steps that should be taken to correct the situation.
- Avoid harsh or sudden braking. When coming across a snowy or icy patch, there can be a natural tendency to hit the brakes. Sudden braking, however, can start a slide or can aggravate a slide. It is preferable to allow the vehicle to slow down on its own and any braking should be approached as if there was a raw egg between your foot and the brake pedal. As the vehicle slows, the slide will become more manageable.
- Don't accelerate aggressively. After slowing your sliding vehicle, you will gain a sense of better control. At this point, you will want to accelerate but do so slowly and cautiously. Pay attention to how much grip your tires have with the road surface, and accelerate slowly to maintain the grip.
- Turn into the slide. This is perhaps the most challenging part of correcting a slide because there is a tendency to want to do the opposite. Turning into the slide means turning your steering wheel in the direction the rear of your vehicle is sliding. It sounds simple enough. If the rear of your car is sliding to right, turn the steering wheel to the right. When it slides to the left, turn the steering wheel to the left. Keep in mind, steering, like accelerating and braking, should be done cautiously and smoothly. Do not over-steer and over-correct.
The key to correcting a slide is not to panic. In most cases, you can correct a sliding car if you keep your head and avoid sudden braking, acceleration and remember to turn into the slide.
If You Have an Accident
Having an accident on snowy or icy roads is unlike experiencing an accident in dry conditions. While you should stop and exchange information following a traditional accident, this can lead to an increasingly dangerous situation when ice and snow are present. If you have a single-car accident in ice or snow and your car is still drivable, move to a safe place far off the roadway at the nearest exit or rest area. If it involves multiple vehicles that are drivable, encourage other drivers to meet at a safer place.
If your vehicle is not drivable, stay inside until approaching traffic slows. You should then exit the vehicle and seek the safety of an embankment or behind a guardrail. Keep in mind an accident in icy conditions frequently triggers additional accidents. It can be tempting to want to immediately inspect your car for damage after an icy road accident. You may be better served, however, to treat your car as if it were on fire and get away. Far too many people are injured and even killed in secondary accidents following an initial icy road crash.
If you witness an icy road crash, contact the authorities rather than stopping along the side of the road. The more vehicles along the side of the road, the more likely there are to be additional incidents. Unless you witness someone in immediate danger, summon help and continue to drive to a safe area off the highway.
Icy and snowy road conditions are always hazardous. Don't be fooled into thinking that because you have an all- or four-wheel-drive vehicle, you are safe. Don't fall into the trap that because you may have some experience in winter driving, that an accident can't or won't happen to you. It is always safer to take precautions and slow down in icy and snowy road conditions. Also remember that near the end of winter is daylight savings time which is considered statistically to be one of the most dangerous weeks of the year.
You can enhance your chances of safe travel by staying in touch with the weather forecast and having your vehicle stocked appropriately. Make sure your car is serviced and ready for the winter driving season. In general, you will benefit from slowing down and keeping assured and cleared distance for the conditions. Maintain proper visibility and learn to anticipate danger zones. If you do start to slide, turn into the direction the rear of your car is sliding.
Stay alert, slow down and stay safe. Driving in icy and winter conditions can be a challenge but it is also manageable.