Why Not Being Prepared for Winter Driving Could be Fatal Main Image

It can happen to anyone, your drive seems to be going smooth and boom! Your car starts skidding. It can be both frightening and dangerous experience but knowing how to react when dangerous situations arise, what to check before driving, what to keep in your car for emergencies and what to do if you become stranded in your car will help keep you safe and could even save your life.

How to react (and other safe driving practices)

With winter weather, slow and steady always wins the race, but knowing how to react when trouble strikes can help you avoid accidents and keep your tires on the road. Making sure you follow safe winter driving practices is the best way to proactively avoid winter accidents and other dangerous situations.

Take it Slow!

The most important thing to remember about winter driving is to take it slow. Quick maneuvers are the number one cause of scary skids and spin outs. Many people like to cling to their security blanket thought of their SUV being immune to winter weather. In practice this can be quite the opposite. The heavier your vehicle is and the higher the center of gravity is the more likely the vehicle is to react poorly to rapid driving maneuvers in winter weather. Just slowing down and keeping in mind that no vehicle is impervious to winter driving hazards will help you avoid an unexpected accident.

In winter weather many things can happen to hinder the visibility of road signs and other important signals that we use every day to make sure our drive is safe. Being over confident of your route and missing one of these while traveling in winter weather could be very dangerous since your car needs an increased distance to stop without sliding. Take it slow and be observant.

Leave extra braking distance

Every vehicle requires an increased distance to safely stop without sliding in winter weather. Momentum just works, trying to stop abruptly on a slippery surface will illustrate this very clearly in a dangerous way. Anti-locking brake systems have been mandatory in all cars since September of 2011 and these braking systems are your friend in winter weather. Before ABS was implemented in cars you had to manually pump the brakes like crazy to stop quickly and maintain steering control. Now with ABS built into all newer cars, if you have a car equipped with ABS you can just hit the brakes and your ABS takes care of the rest. You’ll notice a pulse like feeling from the pedal or possibly an almost grinding “thunk-thunk-thunk” type of sound. This is normal and lets you know that the system is rapidly pumping your brakes for you. You can still steer your vehicle with the system fully engaged, this helps you slow down and maintain control.

Never assume all-wheel-drive will help you stop. Having all four wheels working for you will help keep you moving forward in slippery situations but stopping will require adequate braking. Many people like to assume that having AWD is the mechanical cure all for winter weather but making sure you still have an adequate stopping distance is very important to avoid unwanted skids or worse accidents.

Turn down your music

I know what you’re thinking, if the music is too loud than you’re too old right? With winter driving that’s all wrong. Being able to hear your tires while you’re driving in winter conditions can be a huge indication about the surface you’re driving on. If you can hear the crunch your tires on snow, it’s an indication that you’ve got traction but are on a potentially dangerous surface. When the tires go surprisingly silent this is an indication that you could be driving on sheer ice, a much more dangerous surface to drive on with very little traction. Simply hearing this change can help you safely adjust your driving to fit the surface you’re currently on.

When you slide, steer into it

You’ve taken all the proactive steps you can, you’re turning right at the next intersection and the back of your car starts to slide left instead. DON’T PANIC. Turning in the direction of the rear wheels (in this case to the left) will help you bring the car back in line with itself. This action is called oversteer and it’s what happens when the back of a car slides out of alignment with the rest of the car and the driver steers in the opposite direction to re-align the car. When doing this it’s important to remember that at this point your car has already lost traction and is in a slide. Make sure you are gentle with your steering wheel and have a firm grip with both hands, and ease off of the gas. Hitting the brakes or punching the gas will only make the slide worse.

What to check before leaving

Whether you’re just an everyday motorist or if your company sends its employees out in company owned vehicles, checking and maintaining the following systems can help prevent dangerous situations while driving in winter weather.

Brakes

Making sure your brakes are providing even and balanced braking is important as well as making sure the brake fluid is at the proper level to help combat the increased stopping distance required when driving in slippery weather.

Check Your Fluids

Neglecting your cars thirst in cold weather could result in a frozen line and could end up causing a major headache in cold weather. To avoid this make sure your windshield wiper fluids are topped off, your coolant is at an adequate fill level and your gas and oil levels aren’t too low.

Electrical System

Make sure your ignition system is functioning properly and that your battery is fully charged with clean connections. Then make sure your alternator belt is in good shape and has the right tension.

Exhaust System

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious threat, it’s very important to make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow at all times. A clogged exhaust pipe will send dangerous exhaust fumes into your car and can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Tires

Make sure you have enough tread left on your tires. Bald tires don’t fare too well in slippery conditions. Switching to winter/snow tires in the cold months helps most people manage the longevity of their tires while maintaining better traction in winter conditions.

Visibility Systems

Make sure all of your external lights and mirrors are functioning properly and are clear of obstruction from snow. Make sure your defrosters are working correctly and clear your windshield and wipers of any ice and snow. Make sure you clean all of the snow off of your car before hitting the road. In some areas it’s illegal to drive a car that hasn’t been cleared of snow. Not to mention it’s very dangerous for other drivers if a large piece of ice or chunks of snow go flying into traffic while you’re driving. DO NOT USE HOT WATER. Using hot water to clear your windshield of ice and snow is a bad idea unless you enjoy looking through cracked glass. Make sure you use a scraper and brush that are designed for automotive use, no one wants to scratch up their paint job or windows. It’s always a good idea to switch over to a low-temperature anti-freeze for your windshield wipers when dealing with winter driving. Whether you opt for the low-temperature anti-freeze or the regular blue stuff, make sure you’re topped off before hitting the slush, salt and sand covered roads.

What to keep in your car

Being prepared is your best defense for dealing with winter weather. If you find yourself stuck on the side of the road in heavy winter weather being properly prepared could save your life.

Communication is Key

Having a means of communication is essential if you’re stuck and need help. Keeping a cellphone or two-way radio available in your car can help you make sure you’re able to call out for help in an emergency. Make sure you have the charger available for your cellphone or extra batteries for your radio.

Tools to dig yourself out

If you find yourself stuck in winter weather, having the tools needed to clear the snow and help you clear that ditch are essential. Keep an ice-scraper and snow brush easily available to clear your windows and car of snow. If you know you’re traveling through exceptionally bad winter weather keeping a shovel and traction aids (bag of sand or cat litter) available is great to help you bail yourself out of a chilly situation. Being able to clear the snow from in front of and behind your tires and applying a traction aid to the areas in front of and behind your drive wheels will help you out when you find yourself stuck in deep snow. Keep in mind that the more you spin your tires when you’re stuck the deeper the hole you’re digging yourself into gets. Also, you create more resistance to movement in either direction when your front wheels are turned sharply in either direction. It’s best to try and keep your front tires as straight as possible. Keeping a tow chain in your car can help bail you out when all else fails, but you’ll need a friend (or nice passerby) with a truck to help tow you out. Keeping jumper cables or a battery powered jump pack in your car is a great idea for any season, you never know when your battery may die. In the winter this is more likely, when temperatures drop so does the performance of batteries.

Being seen

When you’re stuck on the side of the road, or worse in the road, being seen can be the difference of life or death. If you’re involved in a multiple car accident on a highway in heavy winter weather, stay in your car and make sure your lights are on. It’s very dangerous to exit your car in the middle of a multi-car accident. Other motorists may not be able to see you away from your vehicle and could accidentally hit you or your vehicle. Making sure that the headlights and tail lights are on will help make yourself more visible in this situation and the metal frame of your car can help protect you from oncoming motorists. Using a flashlight or any other type of illuminating object will help you stand out in a snow storm. A road flare or glow-stick are great to put out in the road near your car to indicate your there and stopped. Extra batteries are always a good idea if you’re deciding to keep a flash light in your car for emergencies.

Stuff that can save you if you’re stuck

Sometimes there’s no avoiding getting stuck. Planning ahead can help keep you comfortable and safe while you wait for help. Blankets and a change of clothes will be essential to help you stay warm and make sure you have a dry set of clothes. This is important when trying to combat hypothermia that could set in if you’re stuck for a long period of time. Keeping bottled water and snacks is important if you are traveling in a remote area through winter weather. Being stuck in hazardous weather far away from people can be fatal if you’re stuck for a long period of time without food and water. If you know you’re traveling far and could get stranded far from other people if you take any medications you’ll want to bring them along in case of an emergency.

Help I’m stranded!

Knowing what to do when you’re stranded in your car in winter weather is essential to survival in these harsh conditions. Thankfully you’ve prepared a solid winter emergency kit after reading our article and have all the tools you need to stay safe while you call and wait for help.

First things first, make sure you’re visible. Calling for help won’t do you any good if the person coming to bail you out can’t see you. It will also help protect you from passing motorists who may not be able to see you. Make sure there are no oncoming motorist and exit your car carefully. Using your flashlight inspect your exhaust pipe and make sure that it’s clear of snow. If you have a road flair this is a good time to use it to make sure you’re seen on the road.

Once you’ve made sure the exhaust pipe is clear and you’re illuminated, start the car for a short period of time and run the heater to help bring the temperature in the car up while you call for help with your cellphone or radio. Make sure to only run the car for short periods of time to avoid running out of fuel. While you wait it’s recommended to bundle up with a blanket or additional clothing to help reduce the chances of frostbite or hypothermia.

We can’t control the conditions on the road but we can mitigate the dangers involved with driving in winter conditions. Knowing how to react when dangerous situations arise, what to check before driving, what to keep in your car for emergencies and what to do if you become stranded in your car will help keep you safe and could even save your life. Please drive safe and always take every precaution you can when driving in winter weather.