Car Preparation and Winter Driving Safety Guide
Winter driving comes with a unique set of hazards, but preparation and knowledge can go a long way towards reducing and avoiding potential problems.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 22% of annual crashes - nearly 1,259,000 – may be due to weather conditions. Many could have been prevented with simple preparation.
Winter weather conditions are more hazardous in northern states. To learn about the statistics for your state, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Safe Driving Preparation Tips
Before it gets cold, make sure you and your vehicle are prepared for the months ahead.
- Limit unnecessary travel when road conditions are bad. Check for weather updates and warnings before making plans or going out.
- Clear all snow and ice from your vehicle’s windows, headlights, signals, brake lights and hood.
- Always remember to buckle your safety belt and secure children properly. Be aware that bulky winter clothing may make child restraints difficult to secure and limit their effectiveness. It is better to place coats and blankets over the restraints rather than under them.
- Fully charge your cell phone before getting into the vehicle.
- Avoid warming up the car while it is parked in the garage. This can lead to potentially dangerous and sometimes even fatal levels of carbon monoxide. To learn more about the dangers of carbon monoxide, visit Iowa State University.
- For new drivers, practice bad weather driving in a safe location such as an empty parking lot before hitting the open road with other drivers and vehicles.
- Make sure that your tires are the right ones for the season and that they are properly inflated. Avoid over inflation of tires, as this can limit traction in addition to being a potential hazard. To learn more about tire safety in winter, visit the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
On the Road
- Avoid rushing. Leave plenty of room to drive at speeds that are safe for the current driving conditions.
- Give snow plows plenty of room and skip on driving close to them when avoidable. To learn about what snow plow drivers can and cannot see, visit the Texas Department of Transportation.
- Leave plenty of room between you and other vehicles to allow for more time and space to stop, especially in icy or wet weather.
- If you begin to skid, stay calm, ease your foot off the gas, stay off the brake, and turn the wheel in the direction that you want to go.
- Keep the vehicle’s headlights on, even in the daytime, when there is snow, rain, sleet, or overcast conditions.
- Avoid using the cruise control when roads are wet, covered in snow, or potentially icy.
- Be aware that bridges form ice before other sections of road.
- Be cautious of black ice. Not all ice is visible.
- Avoid making abrupt moves or oversteering, which may cause your vehicle to skid.
- If you become stuck, stay in the vehicle if it is in a safe location to do so, especially during cold or adverse weather conditions.
- To limit damage from hydroplaning stay calm, avoid puddles, drive at a lower speed, drive in a lower gear, avoid hard braking, and avoid sharp turns. To learn more about what to do when your vehicle is hydroplaning, visit Consumer Reports.
- If conditions become too severe or visibility is restricted, find a safe place off the road to park away from traffic.
- If your vehicle is stuck in snow, do not spin the tires. Put the vehicle in the lowest gear and attempt to rock the vehicle free by switching between reverse and going forward. Dig out the tires. Use cat litter, sand, or other available materials to create traction for the wheels. When all else fails, call a friend or towing company to pull the vehicle out of the snow.
Knowing Your Vehicle and Car Care
- Front-wheel, rear-wheel, or 4-wheel drive – Know your vehicle’s limits and advantages on bad weather. Rear wheel drive is better if you will be using the vehicle for towing, front-wheel drive has some benefit in making progress through snow, and four-wheel drive has a decided advantage in the snow.
- Anti-lock Brakes – Know your brakes. Apply steady and firm pressure to anti-locking brakes. Never pump them.
- Traction control – Be aware of if a vehicle has traction control, especially if borrowing one that is unfamiliar to you. More caution is needed to avoid skidding in vehicles that lack it.
- Adding weight – Adding additional weight to your vehicle in the winter months may allow tires to get better traction. Just make sure that you are not adding the weight to the back if you have a front-wheel drive vehicle!
- Windshield wipers and fluid – Keep your windshield fluid topped off and invest in new windshield wiper blades when the old ones show signs of wear. This will help to maintain visibility while driving. If you will be driving in snow this winter, also consider a small investment in winter wipers.
- General car care – Get regular seasonal maintenance to make sure tires are in good condition and your vehicle, including brakes, is in optimal condition. Also, make sure that you are using the right oil weight for the season if applicable, and keep the vehicle topped off with antifreeze. For more advice on winter car care, visit the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
- Motorcycles – Don’t forget proper maintenance and storage to avoid rust and other winter-long issues for motorcycles.
To learn more, you can also visit Ready.gov.
Emergency Road Kit
Have a winter weather kit in your vehicle that contains a scraper, snow brush, tow chain, shovel, sand (cat litter works too), flashlight, tire chains for severe snow, emergency snacks, blankets, gloves, hat, a coat, and winter boots.
In addition to these items, all road kits should also include flares, a safety vest, tire iron, jack, emergency road signs, jumper cables, a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and basic mechanic’s tools.
Additional Tips for Building Your Road Kit
- Winter Storm Survival Kit for Travelers (PDF) – Weather.gov
- Emergency Gear and Coffee Can Survival Kit (PDF) – US Forest Service
- Mini Survival Kit for Winter Storm Survival (PDF) – University of Kansas Medical Center
- Winter Weather Road Trip FAQs (PDF) - Texas Department of Transportation
Winter Driving, Liability, and Insurance
Before getting behind the wheel, make sure that your car insurance policy will cover the situation.
- Always have a designated driver. Never drink and drive. Not only is it extremely dangerous to everyone on the road, but many insurance policies will not cover any damages caused by it.
- If borrowing a vehicle or lending yours out, make sure that your policy, or the policy covering the car, extends to situations in which the someone other than the primary policy holder of the vehicle is driving. This is often an extra not included in a basic insurance policy.
- Check your policy carefully to make sure it covers you during hazardous weather, for towing from the snow, and other winter and weather related possibilities such as flooding.
- Consider investing in an annual emergency road service membership.
Additional Winter Driving Safety Resources
- Winter Driving Tips (PDF) – University of Colorado, Denver
- Safe Winter Driving Tips – New York State Thruway Authority
- Wyoming Winter Weather Preparedness (PDF) – Wyoming Office of Homeland Security
- Winter travel information – Iowa Department of Transportation
- Winter, Your Car, and You (PDF) – California State University, Chico
- Safe Winter Driving (PDF) – NJ.gov
- Winter Driving Safety Video – York County, Virginia