Every season has its driving challenges, but winter can be the most treacherous and dangerous time of year for motorists. Unpredictable road conditions, changing visibility, poor weather and other motorists can combine to make winter driving dangerous — or even deadly.
Crashes due to ice, snow or sleet account for over 1.5 million accidents per year, with winter conditions accounting for up to 17% of weather-related crashes and fatalities. Unsafe winter driving accounts for hundreds of thousands of accidents yearly. Over 70 percent of the nation’s roads lie in snowy areas, which means learning to drive safely in winter conditions is a must.
Fortunately, being prepared can go a long way toward mitigating the hazards of winter driving. If you can’t avoid going out in the ice and blinding slow, this guide will help you prepare for the worst.
- Icy Road Fatality Statistics from Icy Road Safety
- How Weather Events Impact Roads from the Federal Highway Administration
- Winter Car Accident Statistics from Gemma Law Associates
- Winter Storm Information from Seattle.gov
Preparation for Winter Driving
Choose the right vehicle . Not all cars are created equal. In winter conditions, a 4-wheel drive truck or SUV braking on snow-covered roads will stop about four meters before a sub-compact or minivan. If you have a choice of vehicles, choose a four-wheel drive equipped with snow tires. [ source ]
Fuel up . Always keep your fuel tank as full as possible — experts recommend at least half a tank, and a full tank if possible. Don’t take a chance on running out of gas in inclement weather. A half-empty tank can also cause ice in the fuel lines.
Equip snow tires . Tires are your vehicle’s only contact with the road, so it’s important that they be appropriate for the weather, in good condition, and have the proper tire pressure. Cold weather can decrease tire pressure, which in turn can affect your driving, and worn or damaged tires can be a hazard. While “all-season” tires might be safe for mild winter weather, you may need to invest in a good set of snow tires if you live in (or are traveling through) an area with heavy snowfall.
Get your vehicle checked . Take your car in for a maintenance check-up. Make sure the fluid levels (oil, antifreeze, etc.) are checked, and make sure your windshield washer fluid is both full and rated for the cold weather. Keeping some extra antifreeze and washer fluid in the car is also a good idea. You should also make sure your headlights and taillights are in working condition. Before any long journeys, check with your car insurance agents to make sure you’re covered in case of the worst-case scenario.
Have supplies on hand . In addition to extra antifreeze and washer fluid, you should also have a winter “survival kit” for your car. Vital equipment may include:
- An ice scraper / brush
- A tow chain or rope
- Booster cables
- Road flares
- Sand or gravel for traction
- Blankets and extra gloves / hats
- Food and water suitable for winter conditions (granola bars, etc.)
- Candles and matches
- A flashlight and extra batteries
Have an emergency plan . Check the weather conditions before you go out. Make sure you’re dressed for cold weather, in case you break down or get in an accident. Plan your route in advance, and make sure people know when and where to expect you. Keep your cell phone fully charged in case of emergencies — but don’t use it while driving, especially where it’s not legal to do so. Leave yourself some extra time for your journey so you can take your time.
- Winter Driving Preparation from USD Ontario (PDF)
- Putting the Brakes on Winter Driving Crashes from the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety
- Winter Driving Quiz from Allegheny College
- Winter Driving Tips from Iowa State University
- Winter Driving Emergency Car Kit from Washington State DOT
Driving in Snow
Driving in snow changes how your vehicle interacts with the road. For example, a car coming to a stop in snowy conditions will take twice as long to stop as on a dry, clear road. The same car traveling on ice will take three times the distance to come to a complete stop.
The safest thing you can do while driving on snow? Slow down and be patient! Many winter driving accidents are caused by motorists traveling too fast for the weather conditions. The other drivers on the road may be “re-learning” how to drive in snow, so being aware and considerate is a big step in the right direction. Stay accident-free, and you will thank yourself when your auto insurance company reviews your policy.
- Other tips for driving safely in the snow include:
- Avoid sudden braking, accelerating, and turning of the wheel.
- Look ahead as far as visibility allows, to watch for oncoming obstacles.
- Stay well back from snow plows and only pass them if absolutely necessary.
- Never pass snow plows on the right.
- Driving in Winter Fact Sheet from the Texas Department of Insurance (PDF)
- Winter Driving Tips from Safercar.gov
- Prepare for Winter Driving from Washington State DOT
- How to Drive in Snow without Four-Wheel Drive from the Automotive Training Center
- Chain Controls in Snowy or Icy Road Conditions from the National Park Service
Driving in Ice, Sleet, and Freezing Rain
Ice is even more treacherous than driving in snow, and can dramatically change how your vehicle interacts with the road. If you must go driving in icy conditions, keep these safety tips in mind:
- Under normal conditions, you should use the “two-second” rule — you should be at least two seconds behind the car in front of you at all times. In snowy and icy conditions, double or even triple this number.
- Don’t use your cruise control while driving on ice or snow.
- Be especially cautious when approaching shaded areas, bridges, and overpasses, where freezing rain and ice occurs most frequently.
- Braking in ice and snow can be challenging. For cars with non-ABS brakes, braking with a pumping motion is recommended. If your vehicle has ABS or disk braking systems, you should not pump the brakes. If you don’t know what kind of brakes your vehicle has, consult a mechanic, your driver’s manual, or the Internet.
- In case of a skid, turn in the direction of the skid. Drivers in vehicles with rear-wheel drive should take their foot off the accelerator, while drivers in vehicles with front-wheel drive should keep steady pressure on the accelerator.
- Turn on your headlights, even during daylight hours, to increase your visibility to other drivers.
- Winter Weather Facts from Ready Wisconsin
- How to Deal with Ice and Snow from Connecticut DOT
- Driving on Snow and Ice: 10 Safety Tips from Texas Tech
- Safe Winter Driving from OSHA
- Driving on Ice and Snow from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
What to Do if You’re Stranded in Winter Weather
If you do happen to get in an accident, or just get stranded, don’t panic. Here are some steps you can take to keep yourself safe:
- Remain calm and don’t leave your vehicle. Staying in your car will provide shelter and warmth.
- Alert other drivers to your presence with road flares or brightly colored cloth tied to the vehicles antenna or door handle. You can also turn on a flashlight to alert other drivers and let them know you’re stranded.
- Keep bottled water on hand. Drinking snow is generally a bad idea — it will lower your body temperature.
- Run the engine for warmth, but no more than ten minutes per hour. Make sure to leave a window slightly open for ventilation, and don’t let the exhaust pipe get clogged — a blocked exhaust can direct toxic gases into the vehicle.
- If you must leave your vehicle, do so for short periods and don’t wander off. Your best bet is to stay where there’s shelter and warmth.
- Winter Storms and Extreme Cold from Ready.gov
- How to Make a Winter Survival Kit from Ready Wisconsin
- Stalled but Safe from ACES Illinois
- Winter Tips from Dartmouth
- During Winter Storms & Extreme Cold from FEMA
Courses, Classes and Additional Information
Safe winter driving can be taught, and many organizations, from OSHA to Bridgestone, offer courses or even online classes that can show you how to make your winter driving even safer. Online courses may provide more detail than what is given in this guide; hands-on classes may include track exercises and real-world experience with hazardous driving conditions.
Classes can range anywhere from less than $100 to $500 and up — a small price to pay, since a winter driving accident could leave a black mark on your record and mean the end of cheap auto insurance.