10 Secrets for Driving in the Snow

John M. Dabbs

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Driving in the snow is dangerous. It can be fun, exhilarating, scary, and deadly. At the very least, piloting a vehicle in the snow is inconvenient.

You’ll find many tried-and-true tips for navigating the snow with your car or truck. Your insurance company likely offers tips, as does the U.S.D.A. agriculture extension agent offices in many parts of the country. Growing up in the southern Appalachian mountains, working on a family farm, and as a paramedic for over thirty years, I have some experience here. Our winters aren’t as long and harsh as they are in many parts of the country, but they come on quickly. As they say in Tennessee (and many other states too, I imagine), if you don’t like the weather, just wait a couple of days).

Based on my experience, and cross-checked with other authorities like the National Safety Council, Car and Driver, and the American Automobile Association (AAA), I’ve included the top ten safety tips for driving in the snow. Maybe you have a few of your own - leave them in the comments for others to see too!

1. Remember that you are your car's most important safety system

Prepare your car and make by making sure the antifreeze is in shape and your windshield washer fluid is rated for -30 F. Keep your fuel tank a minimum of 1/2 full when snow is expected. This reduces your chances of gas-line freeze due to water in the fuel.

Have an emergency kit and know how to use every item.

  • Booster/jumper cables
  • First Aid Kit
  • Flashlight
  • Snacks (non-perishable for a few months)
  • Blankets and extra coat
  • Small shovel
  • Tow strap

Before going anywhere in the snow, be sure the clean off any camera lenses (backup camera, etc.) and any sensors. It's also a good idea not to use your cruise control during snow conditions.

2. Drive silky smooth

Safe driving in winter weather can be more easily accomplished by driving as smooth as silk. Each move should be slow and deliberate. This includes steering, speeding up, and braking. Sudden moves are more apt to cause you to lose traction. Be gentle and drive as though you had a cup of hot chocolate in your hand without a lid.

Have you seen chauffeurs driving limousines? Try and drive just as if you were driving the rich and famous in a huge limo - smoothly, slowly, deliberate, and safe.

3. Install winter tires

Winter tires, commonly referred to as snow-tires, have much more traction than even the best all-season tires. You'll be doing yourself a favor by having a set installed on your car before the weather hits or you have to drive in it much. Snow tires will increase your traction and ability to control your car on snow, slush, and ice. Buy reputable brands. If needed, you can store them during the rest of the year and reinstall for the winter season as needed - or even buy a second set of rims so you can take them off and put them on yourself as needed.

4. Look further into the distance

Your starting and stopping distances are increased in bad weather. You should be increasing your following distance to at least eight seconds. Look further ahead for slowing traffic or other obstacles. You will need the extra time to navigate safely around or to stop safely. Exercise rigid safety measures and slow before entering curves and take them slower.

When approaching a hill or incline, be sure to approach and make the climb without stopping. Stopping is an easy way to get stuck or lose traction.

5. Look where you're going

Don't just "watch where you're going" - look where you want to go! NASCAR drivers are taught to look where they want to go because that's the easiest way to get there - by reflex. Should your car begin to slide or skid, always look at where you are wanting your car to be. Do not look where your car is sliding.

Just as with any skid, ease off the gas and keep off the brake until you're about to make a sudden impact. Looking where you want to be allows you to steer there more easily and instinctively. Your outside/peripheral vision will keep an eye on other obstacles - don't worry. As you begin to regain control, ease back on the gas, and make your way to your desired spot.

Last-ditch - if you lose control or about to hit something, use your brakes and hold them down firm. It couldn't be any worse... usually.

6. Breaking traction - skids and sliding

Sooner or later you will hit a slick spot and lose traction. It happens on gravel, dirt, wet roads, snow, and ice. You should know how to deal with a skid/slide as they are all treated the same.

In short, let off the gas and turn in the direction of the skid (turn the wheels in the direction your car is sliding - not the direction you necessarily want to go. Don't stand on the brakes yet - save that for an emergency where you are about to run off the side of the road or hit something.

In front-wheel-drive cars, simply letting off the gas will allow you to regain control when the front end loses traction on a turn. Just aim where you want to go as you regain control and your tires grip. Rear-wheel-drives often lose traction on the rear-end and begin to spin-out. Turn in the direction of the rear end as you let off the gas. Once you resume control, steer in the direction you want to go.

The best practice is to ease off the gas and leave your foot off the brake. As your wheels regain traction, gently accelerate as needed to pull your vehicle back into the desired path and slow or stop as needed. If you are about to hit something or go off the roadway, don't be afraid to use your brakes anyway. Stand on your brakes if necessary - it couldn't do any harm at that point and could help.

7. Know how to use your braking system

When you must stop quickly on snow or ice, use your car's anti-lock-braking-system (ABS). All but the older cars are now equipped with ABS. ABS uses an onboard computer for optimum braking in poor weather and road conditions.

To engage your ABS, you need only hold your foot firmly down on the brake pedal without letting up. The system does the work of rapid stop and releases to keep your tires moving but slowing rapidly in an effort to retain or regain traction. You'll be able to steer somewhat while ABS is activated, should you have some traction, as the wheels keep moving until stopped. So in an emergency don't just slam on the brakes - hold them down and remember to keep steering.

As ABS is activated, you may hear or feel a rapid vibration or shudder. This is normal and is one way to let you know they are working properly. No system is perfect, but ABS has reduced accidents and saved lives.

8. Be aware of warning lights

ABS is part of most newer vehicles' traction and stability control systems. On many vehicles when your vehicle loses traction, an amber or yellow light with a triangle or car with wavy lines will flash. If you're driving in a straight line, you've lost traction and should ease off the gas until you regain control of your vehicle. If you are turning, it's a sign that your vehicle could be sliding. In this case, react the same way and let off the gas to slow down until you can regain traction, slowly accelerating when traction is regained.

Always remember, drive smoothly and do not make sudden jerks with the wheel or with accelerator brake pedals. Everything should be done smoothly to help regain vehicle control and keep it.

9. Keep an eye on your traction

This may seem superfluous, but you should always maintain situational awareness. In poor road conditions, you should access the road surface and your actual control of the vehicle. Do this when you have adequate following distance and are traveling in a straight line.

Tap the brakes and see if your vehicle slows appropriately. If unsure, quickly tap the brakes firmly for a moment and see if you notice the ABS activate or the traction control system lights flicker on your dash. If they do and you aren't experiencing typical slowing - you are probably in an area with poor traction and road conditions and should adjust your driving. Better safe than sorry.

Be sure you do not have anyone following closely or you could make someone behind you quite irritated, if not too close for comfort.

10. Be cautious of all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive

Don't be fooled by 4x4s and AWD vehicles. They give many drivers a false sense of security in poor driving conditions. The ability to spin all four wheels - front and rear - gives a driver more going power. It does not always give the driver the going power in the direction they desire.

On dirt and gravel roads, you'll find these vehicles do their best and with nominal off-road driving conditions. They usually aren't meant for real snow and ice driving. They make snowcats and snowmobiles for such activities. The problem is you can't necessarily steer or stop an AWD or 4WD vehicle more easily than a two-wheel-drive vehicle - not once you break traction.

You should also be familiar with the handling characteristics of 4WD and AWD vehicles, and many handle and drive differently than their two-wheel counterparts. As with other vehicles, knowing how to drive in snow - silky smooth and knowing your vehicle's systems and how to handle skids are important. These vehicles also benefit from winter tires for improved traction.

Remember -

Your best bet is to prepare your vehicle and have the right tires on it before winter weather arrives. Have plenty of gas/fuel and drive silky smooth. Handle skids and your brakes wisely.

Thank you for reading. Please follow me on News Break. You can download the app here.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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