Even the best drivers in the best conditions are at risk when on the road, simply because you cannot control the other motorists around you. The risks of driving increase tenfold in the wintertime, with slick roads, worse visibility through snow and fog, and reduced sunlight in the morning and evening hours complicating your travel. Properly preparing your vehicle for cold weather driving and educating yourself on safe winter driving techniques can do more than save you money on repairs and insurance: it can save your life.
Check your Vehicle
Routine vehicle checklists are important in warmer months, but a failure in winter can compound the already dangerous conditions. Clean and polish your headlights to ensure proper night vision, and keep your battery fully charged so you don’t find yourself stranded and freezing. Clean your windshield and wiper blades, check your tire pressure, and refresh your fluids, including windshield wiper fluid, oil, and antifreeze. Consider filling out an emergency bag to keep in your trunk stocked with supplies such as non-perishable food, a flashlight, a shovel, and a first aid kid.
Check the Weather
The single best thing you can do to keep yourself safe when driving in the winter is check the weather early and often. Be especially cautious if there are winter storm watches or warnings in your area, but be mindful of anything worse than clear skies. Many local weather services will have a notice of ice conditions on the road, especially in the morning, when roads may have iced over overnight. If conditions are expected to worsen significantly while you are out, consider rescheduling the trip.
Be sure you are aware of alternate paths in case one road becomes blocked due to an accident or other impediment, and let someone know when you are leaving and the path you intend to take in case of an emergency where you are unable to contact anyone by phone.
Check your Speed
Posted speed limits are set under the assumption of ideal conditions, and are too fast for safe driving in difficult conditions. In the winter, ideal conditions will be rare. Slick roads will cause your stopping distance and your chance of skidding to increase, and slowing down is the best way to combat this. Be especially gradual in your braking, acceleration, and steering for the same reason.
Be sure your stopping distance never exceeds the visible distance ahead of you, and begin slowing down for traffic and intersections earlier than you normally would, as an invisible patch of ice ahead can easily send you far past your intended stopping point. Brakes are less reliable overall in slippery conditions, so rely on a slow deceleration without hard braking. For the same reason, try and avoid braking on curves: your wheels will not grip as well when locked, and if the road is slick, the car may slide outward off the road or into oncoming traffic.
Even if the road looks clear, be very mindful of bridges, overpasses, or even especially forested areas. The decreased sunlight these locations are exposed to could mean that large patches of ice remain on the road after it has melted everywhere else.
If worst comes to worst and you find yourself stuck in snow, avoid gunning the engine: your tires will simply dig the rut in further and make it harder to get out. Instead, alternate moving forward and in reverse to try and widen the area you have to move and eventually build the momentum to escape. If unsuccessful, try and use a shovel to dig yourself out – or hope for friendly passerby! If you drive conservatively and defensively and take proper precautions, you should be able to avoid this unfortunate situation all winter long.
AUTHOR: David Young works for Car Accessories Plus, enjoying a quieter life after spending most of his years on a hard floor underneath vehicles the world over.