How to drive defensively in winter weather

It is imperative to drive with caution in the winter.

It is imperative to drive with caution in the winter.

Snow can make winter great fun – we’re sure every kid appreciates a snow day – but for drivers, the first snowfall ushers in the worst driving season of the year. Slippery, icy conditions and lack of visibility combined with shorter days make for treacherous roads. Less tire traction and more snow and ice building up on your car mean increased strain on your vehicle’s normal functions.

While you can’t snap your fingers and make the sun come back again, you can arm yourself against the weather. By following these 9 important winter weather driving tips, you can make it through the cold with minimal wear and tear

1. Slow down and increase your following distance

The speed limits posted are for motorists driving in ideal weather conditions – snow, ice, and rain don’t count. In general, do everything more slowly in the winter, since in snow, tires are just barely gripping the road. Accelerating or braking quickly can lead to skidding and accidents.

To familiarize yourself with driving on slick ice or snow without bumping into another car, practice in an empty lot. Avoid spinning the tires when you start by gently pressing the gas pedal. Get a feel for how to steer and brake, and slow down at least 3 times sooner than when you would normally turn or brake. Knowing how your car feels and drives will give you extra time to react in case difficult situations arise.

In snowy conditions, reduce your speed to half the posted speed limit.

2. Increase speed on the flat before going uphill

The key here is not to spin your wheels, which will make you lose traction and stall before you hit the hilltop. To ensure you have enough power, step on the accelerator on the flat before the hill. As the car slows up the hill, ease up on the accelerator and let the car slowly crest the hill.

Take it slow when you're on the snow.

Take it slow when you’re on the snow.

3. Grip the road during a curve

Lack of grip causes lack of control, and lack of control leads to accidents. To maximize grip, brake only before the curve while the car is traveling straight. Then take your foot off the brake as you head into the curve so you can use all grip available for steering. Accelerate as you finish the curve and straighten the steering wheel.

If you enter a corner with too much speed, you could risk spinning your wheels and losing control. Also key to preventing a skid is good steering wheel control, since being rough with your steering can cause your vehicle to lose balance.

4. Avoid skids by downshifting before you turn a corner (manual transmission only)

Repeat after us: DO NOT downshift in a curve. Gear changes should be made while you’re still going straight, before you hit a curve. Downshifting in a curve can destabilize your car and cause a skid.

5. Keep your low beams on in snow or fog

Using your low beams in fog will minimize glare and reflection and maximize visibility. Look to the right when there are oncoming cars to avoid getting blinded.

6. Know how to use your ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System) to increase grip

Brake slowly and smoothly in normal conditions. In case of emergency, step on the brakes hard, but only if you have an ABS. Anti-lock brakes allow you to steer even as you’re braking to (hopefully) navigate you out of danger.

Snow plow

 7. Watch out for danger ahead, especially shady areas with “black ice”

Good drivers know to anticipate problems so they’ll react correctly and promptly. Road conditions vary from one area to another – sometimes ice may remain on bridges even though the rest of the roads are clear.

As a rule of thumb, roads are cooler in shady areas. Sometimes “black ice,” or a transparent coating of ice over roads, can make the black of asphalt roads show through and appear as if there is no ice at all. The ice’s invisibility causes skidding and accidents for unassuming drivers.

Therefore, always slow your car in shady areas, bridges, or infrequently used roads, since they freeze first and can remain frozen even if the temperature is above freezing.

Snow also means snow plows will be on the road. While they will be driving slowly, do not cut them off, since their visibility is severely limited by blowing snow.

8. Keep driving conditions comfortable + clear your car of ice

Turn on cool air to keep windows clear and to keep you awake. Avoid large, bulky clothing while you are driving.

Keep lights and your windshield clean with snow and ice scrapers. There are also special blades designed to remove ice from your windshield.

9. Don’t think you are invincible because you have four-wheel drive

Four-wheel drive does not increase braking or curve-turning capability – like all other vehicles, four-wheel drive cars depend on four tire contact points on the ground for grip. Imprecise, hurried driving causes all cars to lose balance just the same.

Snow tires or chains help increase traction, but chains are more effective, since snow tires can still slide around on ice and packed snow.

Note: If you have a rear-wheel drive vehicle, you can put a bag or two of sand behind the rear axle to increase traction. Just don’t put too much weight back there, or you could risk weighing down the back too much and lifting up the front, reducing your braking and steering abilities.