When the weather is dicey, it can be scary to head to work or visit family for the holidays. Learning how to drive on icy roads or in the snow can be challenging, especially if you don’t see extreme weather often. When ice and snow fall in places where winter weather is less common, it can be hazardous to hit the road. So let’s take a closer look at ten tips to keep you and others safe in dangerous conditions. Let’s dive in!
Not Everyone Learns to Drive on Icy and Snowy Roads
I’m a yooper, born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There, snow is commonly on the round from October to May. So, learning how to drive on icy roads and in the snow was simply part of my adolescence. However, not everyone gets a driver’s education in those conditions. Ice and snow are uncommon in places like south Georgia or Arizona. So when winter weather hits these unlikely areas, many drivers wonder what to do and how to stay safe.
Why Is It Difficult to Drive on Icy and Snowy Roads?
First, slowing down is more challenging when ice or snow is on the roads. You must drive slower and increase your following distance to compensate for the increased braking time. Second, black ice is hard to see. The glassy texture prevents tires from gripping the road and can cause severe accidents.
Anything between your vehicle’s tires and the road decreases traction. So when ice, slush, and snow pile up, your chance of skidding or losing control also increases. Many people who don’t regularly drive in these conditions don’t have the right kind of tires, either. It’s expensive to swap out regular tires for snow tires when you only see snow once every ten years.
Pro Tip: We took a closer look at how tire chains can keep you safe while driving in the winter. Learn more about When and Why You Really Need Them.
How Slow Should You Drive on Icy Roads?
Staying below 45 MPH is a good rule of thumb. If you’ve never learned how to drive on icy roads or in the snow, you may want to slow down even more. However, whether traveling on an interstate or a backcountry road, staying around 45 MPH is an intelligent driving move. If you feel the vehicle fishtailing or sliding on the road, you’re going way too fast.
Driving slow doesn’t just keep you in control while moving. It makes it easier to slow down and stop, especially if the road is more slippery than expected.
15 Tips for Driving on Icy and Snowy Roads From a Yooper
Here are ten tips from a Yooper to help you stay safe while driving in wintry conditions. When you practice these habits, you’ll also protect others on the road. But if you don’t have to get out, stay home. Ice and snow are dangerous conditions for any driver, especially inexperienced ones.
1. Slow Down
The number one tip is to slow down. If you’re late for work, you will be late. There’s no making up for the lost time when driving in icy or snowy conditions. You may not make it to work at all if you try to go as fast as you do on a typical day. This tip is a theme throughout the rest of this article, and you should just expect driving times to be about 20% more than usual.
2. Drive in Tracks Made by Other Vehicles
Tracks from other vehicles provide places of traction for your vehicle’s tires. You won’t have to plow through snow. You’re also driving in drier conditions when you follow the paths from other cars.
3. Leave More Room Between You and Other Vehicles
You want to increase your following distance when you drive on icy roads or snow. You can’t brake as quickly because of the lack of traction, so if a vehicle suddenly stops in front of you, you need extra distance to avoid rear-ending it. Additionally, you want to stay out of other fender-benders. If an accident happens in front of you, you’re more likely to avoid it if you have plenty of room between you and the next driver.
4. Start Stopping for Stop Signs and Traffic Lights Earlier Than Normal
This tip is a reminder that braking is more challenging on ice and snow. So start stopping for stop signs and traffic lights well in advance. If you’re going at a slower speed, you shouldn’t need to slam on your brakes. This will cause you to skid or fishtail.
While your vehicle probably has an anti-lock braking system (ABS), you don’t want to use it every time you stop. Gradual braking will allow your tires to maintain traction on the road.
5. Brake and Accelerate in a Straight Line
Don’t try to brake and turn at the same time if you can help it. Try to perform these actions one at time. Braking in a straight line allows all the braking force to be acting in the same direction, versus your front tires being at a different angle than your rear tires. When coming to a curve with a stop sign, try to slow down before the turn so you have your best braking experience and reduce the likelihood of understeering.
Similarly, don’t hit the throttle hard when in the middle of a turn. Doing so can break traction in either your front or rear tires and cause you to slide and lose control.
6. No Sudden Jerky Movements, Be Smooth On the Controls
Less is more when driving in snow. Less braking, less throttle, less turning. You mustn’t suddenly apply the brakes, turn too quickly down a street, or accelerate too fast. Jerky movements like these will cause you to lose traction and skid across the road, possibly hitting another vehicle, sliding into an intersection, or sliding off the street. Slow down and smooth out everything you do for a safer driving experience.
Pro Tip: As temperatures drop, you will need to know Is a Cold Start Detrimental to Your Vehicle’s Engine?
7. Get Winter Tires
Winter tires are designed to have way more traction than standard tires. Since they are the only thing making contact with the road, they are the single more important thing when you encounter slippery road conditions. While 4-wheel drive is useful, it will do nothing for you if all four tires are slipping on ice. Even front-wheel drive vehicles can handle winter conditions well if they have the right winter tires.
8. Use AWD or 4WD If Possible, But Not Necessary
You may be surprised to hear that you don’t need AWD or 4WD to safely drive in snowy conditions. While they have obvious traction advantages, AWD and 4WD won’t help you with braking which is the most challenging part of snowy winter driving. But they will help more with traction as you drive on snowy roads.
Front-wheel drive vehicles can do just fine on snow with good tire treads and smart driving. Avoid driving rear-wheel drive vehicles in slippery conditions whenever possible, as they are much more prone to fishtailing. Clearance is more of an issue with front-wheel drive vehicles, so stay on plowed roads as much as possible.
9. Keep Gear on Board in Case You Get Stuck
There are certain items we Yoopers always keep in our vehicles during the winter to prepare to drive on icy roads. When you know a winter storm is coming, ensure you have a shovel, a mat for getting traction under your tires, kitty litter, gloves, boots, and a blanket. You ask why kitty litter? You can use kitty litter for emergency traction if your car tires stick in ice. Pour a little bit on the ground to provide something your tires can grab. In addition, you can put kitty litter in a tied-off sock on the dashboard, which will act as a dehumidifier, sucking the moisture to prevent condensation on your windshield.
10. Be Sure to Keep Your Gas Tank Full
Always prepare in case you get stuck. This is why items like gloves and a blanket are on the list for tip #9, too. It may take a while for help to arrive when it’s snowing. You need to keep warm. However, you also need to ensure you don’t run out of fuel. When ice or snow is on the forecast, fuel up the day before. Even if your tank isn’t empty, top it off, so you have plenty of fuel for the days ahead.
11. Never Trust the Road Conditions
Even if the road looks clear or just wet, you can’t 100% know what’s ice or not. If the temperature is at or below freezing, black ice can be present.
Black ice is ice that is the exact color of wet pavement, making it practically invisible from behind the wheel. It is hazardous when you drive on icy roads because it’s very challenging to see. By slowing down, you’re reducing your risk of sliding if you hit a patch of black ice. However, you also want to scan the road for pavement slightly darker than the rest of the road surface, as this may indicate black ice. Take your foot off the accelerator if you can’t avoid the black ice.
Look for packed snow on the edges of the road. Often times these packed areas have a bit more traction than the slicker, icy blacktop.
12. Snow Banks Can Catch You, But Aren’t Always Soft
The movies make snowbanks out to be fluffy piles of powder. However, depending on how they formed they could be rock-solid or hiding something else underneath. Don’t bump into snowbanks unless you absolutely have to, as they can dent your vehicle. However, if you’re sliding out of control, snowbanks may help slow you down before you hit something worse.
13. When You Start To Slide, Slam and Hold the Brakes
Before anti-lock braking systems (ABS), drivers were told to “pump the brakes” to allow the tires an attempt to turn and establish traction with the road. However, modern cars are required to have ABS and traction control systems to help keep your tires from locking up in slippery conditions. You will feel a hammering vibration in the brake pedal when the ABS engages and you should hold the pedal down until you’ve come to a stop or the ABS turns off on its own. Do not pump the brakes if you have ABS brakes as you will just interrupt the anti-locking action.
14. Use Rumble Strip To Hear the Edges of the Road
Sometimes it’s hard to see the edge of the road when it is snowing hard and visibility is poor. Fortunately, rumble strips can help you find them and recenter yourself. Rumble strips are the grooves on the edges and center of roadways to alert drivers when they cross the lines.
While these are mostly for drowsy or distracted drivers, the cautious snow driver can position their right tires to just barely hit these loud markers to navigate safely along the edge of the road. If the noise increases, curve a bit to the left to keep a constant tone. If the noise decreases, curve to the right to stay on the edge.
15. Practice in an Empty Parking Lot
The only way to know how your vehicle is going to handle in a slide is to experience it. If you have an opportunity to practice recovery in an empty parking lot, take it. Speed up, slam on the brakes, turn sharply, and try to regain control quickly. Learn how braking and turning feels, accelerating and turning feels, and fast stops and starts. By testing these out you can start to feel where the limits of your tires are.
ABS and traction control can be startling so you don’t want your first time feeling it to be a critical situation if it doesn’t have to be. Also, learning which direction to steer when slipping is hard to explain. Practice staying calm and smoothly correcting your direction.
Is Driving on Icy and Snowy Roads Safe?
Driving on icy and snowy roads is hazardous. However, sometimes you can’t avoid it. By learning how to drive on icy roads and in the snow, you’re making yourself a safe driver in these conditions. You can’t control what other people do, but you can learn safe tactics to do your part.
Do these helpful tips from a Yooper make you feel better about venturing out when the weather turns nasty this winter? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
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