Prepare your vehicle
- Allow at least an extra 10 minutes to prepare the vehicle.
- For adequate snow traction, a tire requires at least 6/32-inch deep tread. (New passenger vehicle tires usually have 10/32-inch of tread.) Performance “summer” tires have little or no grip in snow. Even “all-season” tires don’t necessarily have great snow traction. If you live where the roads are regularly covered with snow, use snow tires, which are sometimes called “winter tires” by tire makers. They usually have a “snowflake on the mountain” symbol on the sidewall, meaning they meet a tire-industry standard for snow traction.
- Use your headlights so that others will see you. Make sure your headlights and taillights are clear of snow. Clean your lights of any salt and dirt deposits as this can restrict the light output more that you think and you may need every “lumen” that that you can get.
- Clear all windows of snow and ice using deicer and a scraper. Use a good quality deicer as some inferior products will cause refreezing or patchy clearing. Do not use antifreeze designed for the vehicle cooling system as this will most probably take the paint off. Do not drive with just a tiny hole cleared in the windscreen. Do not under any circumstance use hot water to clear vehicle windows. It may cause cracking and breakage or leave stress in the glass which could cause failure later. A partially icy or dirty windscreen will severely restrict your vision as soon as the rays of a low sun fall on it.
- Replace suspect windshield wiper blades. Do not attempt to operate the windshield wipers until the blades are free and not stuck to the glass by ice. Operation in this state may cause the blades to rip or even worse allow the blade to move off the parked position and then jam leading the motor burning out. Turn off at the ignition switch if this happens. Beware the wipers being left switched on from last night. Do not try to clear ice from the windshield with the wipers as this will degrade the rubber.
- Clean the inside of your windows thoroughly. Apply a water-shedding material (such as Rain-X) to the outside of all windows, including the mirrors, this will help the problem of moisture forming and turning to ice. In order to remove condensation and frost from the interior of vehicle windows, engage your air conditioner and select the fresh air option. It’s fine to set the temperature on “hot.” Many vehicles automatically do this when you choose the defrost setting. Direct the cabin side air vents sideways and up on to the side windows. The inbuilt side window vents (if fitted) do not normally have enough flow to clear the window under extreme conditions.
- Ensure the washer reservoir is full as salty water drying on the windscreen can demand copious quantities of fluid to clear it. The winter proportion of water to washer fluid should be maintained.
- Check the roof for snow before you drive. It can slip down over the windscreen and obscure your view during braking or on a slope. Also the blanket of snow can slide off into the path of a following vehicle. Use a cigarette lighter to warm a key for a frozen lock. Do not breathe on the lock, as the moisture will condense and freeze. Carry an emergency kit comprising a cell phone (with fully charged battery), torch, first-aid kit, tow rope, blankets, warm coat and boots, jump leads, snow shovel, warning triangle, an old sack or rug and water repellent spray. Also add a vacuum flask containing a hot drink and high energy snacks. This little bundle could save your life.
- Wear comfortable, dry shoes, as cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
- Plan routes to favor major routes which are more likely to have been gritted.
- Snow chains will increase the amount of grip you have on snow and ice, but you must remove them when not needed. They are generally limited to speeds below 30 mph.
- If you need towing, you may regret not bringing a tow rope. Also remember your vehicle is probably provided with towing eyes Sometime located under a small (usually square) cover.
- Put safety before punctuality when driving in any bad weather. While it’s always a good idea to allow extra time in winter for your journey, drivers must accept the inevitability of being late for work or appointments if they are caught up in an unexpected delay. After all the others may be late as well.
Driving in snow and ice
Driving in snow and ice is much about predicting the actions of other road users. Watch the behavior of oncoming traffic; you may have to avoid them if they slide towards you unexpectedly. Fully expect other road users to be unable to stop at junctions or lose control. Vehicles approaching a narrowing of the road uphill, will not want to stop in case they can’t start again. Vehicles approaching downhill may be unable to stop without skidding. The further people travel in icy conditions the more complacency sets in.
Try to leave a 10 second gap between you and the car in front. The 10 second gap allows you an increased stopping distance, and gives you time to respond if the vehicle in front has problems. If they stop or encounter some problem, you may have time and the space to steer a different course, or by slowing down you can allow time for the obstruction to clear without having to stop and restart yourself. If the vehicle behind you is too close, find a good place to stop and let them go on ahead. Stopping distances can be up to ten times longer in ice and snow.
Unlike snow, ice is often invisible. You have to apply guesswork and experience as to where it waits. Look for reflections in the road surface ahead; what looks like water, may be ice. If the swishing sound of your tires on a wet road goes quiet, you may be on ice. Bright sun and a warm wind can quickly thaw ice, but leave patches in sheltered areas, so be vigilant where a wall casts a shadow over the road – it can be a dramatic short lived change. Watch for water flows from previously melting snow as it may have refrozen.
If you travel a route regularly, note where water normally lies on the road and may subsequently freeze. Road bridges freeze first because they are cooled from below. One of the first signs of slippery conditions is if the steering becomes lighter. The normal tendency of the steering to self-center when you let go of the wheel becomes less powerful when the front wheels lose grip. If you are aware of this effect, you can feel the reduced resistance to your steering wheel movements as the road becomes slippery.
If your vehicle skids, turn the steering wheel into the direction of the skid. Make the reaction quick but not extreme as the vehicle may snap out of the original skid directly into another skid in the opposite direction. When the vehicle straightens carefully steer back to your intended course. Don’t brake – it will just lock up your wheels and you will skid further. Reduce your risk of skidding by reducing your speed; too much power is often the source of problems in snow and ice. Do not ask your tires to steer and brake at the same time. They have to share the available grip between those two functions, so either one detracts from the tire’s ability to do the other. Gentle actions are the key to safe driving. Always apply brakes gently.
If you have ABS braking, it will automatically release the brakes momentarily, and then re-apply them to keep the wheels revolving enough for you to steer. If you drive on icy roads or roads that are covered with snow, modify your ABS technique: After you press the brake pedal and the ABS begins cycling — you will feel pulses in the pedal or hear the system working — ease up slightly on the pedal until the pulsing happens only once a second. But remember ABS on some systems stop working below about 4mph, so progressively lift off the brakes as you come to rest. Otherwise you may continue to slide slowly and gracefully into an obstacle.
For vehicles without ABS braking, you’ll have to rely on the old-fashioned cadence braking system. On a mixed surface slippery road, push the brake pedal hard until the wheels stop rolling, then immediately release the brake enough to allow the wheels to begin turning again. Repeat this sequence rapidly. This is not the same as “pumping the brake”, you need to use feedback. Your goal is to have the tires producing maximum grip regardless of whether the surface is snow, ice or damp pavement. Practice this before the emergency.
4×4 four wheel drive vehicles may be able keep going in slippery conditions, but their brakes are no better than an ordinary vehicle and being heavier, they tend to have longer stopping distances – even in good conditions.
The handbrake only works on the rear wheels on most vehicles. For this reason you can use gentle handbrake pressure to retain steering control whilst slowing the vehicle. But you must be careful to do this only at very slow speed and do it gently to avoid locking the rear wheels – or they may slide sideways. It is not easy to sense how well the handbrake is working.
It will be difficult to control your vehicle if the wheels are spinning as you pull away. Start off in second gear to avoid spinning the wheels. Accelerate gently and change up early. If the wheels start to spin, you may instinctively accelerate to keep your forward momentum but that is the wrong thing to do. Spinning wheels have less traction than wheels that are engaged with the snow. Gently lift off the gas until the wheels grip again, and then gently accelerate. If you keep spinning the wheels where the road slopes to the side, you will slide sideways and risk hitting an obstacle, or another vehicle.
Slow down to the right speed before you get to a corner. Perform downshift gear changes while you are traveling in a straight line, then the all the grip of your tires can be used for steering round the corner. Accelerate gently as leave the corner. Try to maintain a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear in advance to avoid having to change down while climbing a hill. When driving downhill, choose third or fourth gear to act as a constant gentle brake and prevent skidding.
Beware of a build up of ice and snow under the wheel arches. This can often form an unexpected obstruction to steering.
Front wheel drive cars will sometimes climb an icy slope better in reverse gear as the front wheels (now the rear) are are benefiting from the weight of additional downward force through acceleration weight transfer. This unlikely approach also means that if you fail to climb the slope, and run out of traction, you are at least facing the right way to control your descent back to the bottom of the hill. This avoids the problem that if you fail to climb up a steep snowy slope in the normal forwards direction, you can find yourself sliding down hill backwards with all the consequences of trying to steer in reverse. The reduced visibility and awkwardness of reversing means that this method should only be tried if you are sure about the intentions of other traffic and have plenty of room.
If you do get stuck in snow, straighten the steering and clear as much snow from the wheels as you can. Put a sack or old rug under the driving wheels in the direction you want to move, to give the tires some grip. Rock the vehicle back and forwards by selecting a forward then reverse gear in a cyclical action to gain momentum and lift the vehicle out of the rut. Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground.
If your are unfortunate enough to get stuck in a drift use any available material to keep warm Only run the engine for short periods to keep warm if you have to. But be aware that carbon monoxide from exhaust gases can take effect without warning and kills. Stay with the vehicle unless you are absolutely sure that safety is within reach. It will be far easier for rescuers to find a vehicle on a road that a person in a field. If you do leave your vehicle, try and leave it where it won’t be a problem to other traffic and snow ploughs.
If the unthinkable happens remember that seatbelts and frontal airbags work much better in a frontal impact, and many cars don’t have side-impact airbags.
Driving an automatic in winter
Under normal driving conditions (freeways, etc) it is best to select ‘Drive’ and let the gearbox do the work throughout the full gear range.
In slippery, snowy conditions you can make driving much safer by selecting ‘2’, which limits the gear changes and also makes you less reliant on the brakes.
Many modern autos have a ‘Winter’ mode which locks out first gear to reduce the risk of wheel spin. Check the handbook if you’re not sure.
Technology and adverse conditions
Technology offers no miracles despite manufacturers claims. All-wheel drive and electronic stability control can get you out of trouble and into trouble by offering a false sense of security. AWD can only help a vehicle accelerate or keep moving: It cannot help you go around a snow covered corner, much less stop at an icy intersection. ESC can prevent a tire spin, but it cannot clear ice from the roads or give your tires more traction. Don’t let these lull you into overestimating the available traction.
Regardless of your experience, driving skill, vehicle or vehicle preparation, there are some winter conditions that can’t be conquered. But these tips may help prevent snowy and icy roads from ruining your day or life.