Driving Tips: Winter Weather

Safe Winter Driving

It’s important to learn some basic strategies to stay safe on winter roads. During winter months, make it a habit to check the weather reports before heading out. If snow or ice is predicted, make plans to leave early or arrive later.

If you can move a night trip to daylight hours, do so. Not only is visibility better, but if your vehicle stalls, you are more likely to receive prompt assistance during the daytime. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is another great source for winter driving tips.

Read our tips to prepare your vehicle for winter driving. Use this checklist as a guideline for “winterizing” your car:

  1. Check windshield wiper blades to make sure they work properly. In some areas, snow blades are an effective alternative to conventional wiper blades. 
  2. Have your mechanic test the antifreeze/coolant to provide the correct level of protection required in your region.
  3. Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Underinflation can reduce tire grip because the tread will not meet the road surface as it was designed to do. Overinflation has the same effect. 
  4. If you live in areas where snow and ice are certainties of winter driving, the best option is to install winter tires. Winter tires are specially designed with compounds that remain flexible in winter weather, and unique tread design that grip the road and provide better traction in snow, ice and slush.
  5. Keep your gas tank at least half full. The extra volume helps reduce moisture problems within your fuel system. It also adds helpful weight to your vehicle. 
  6. In rear-wheel drive vehicles, extra weight in the trunk or pickup truck bed may be helpful. Weight can be put in the back of pickups to provide additional traction, but it must be secured so that it doesn’t move when you brake hard, corner, or get in a collision. The added weight can also increase stopping distance, so you’ll need to find the right balance of benefit vs. handicap and place any weight directly over the drive axle. Bags of sand can provide weight and, if sprinkled on the ice, sand helps provide traction. 

Know Your Car — Know Your Brakes

In everyday driving situations, cars with ABS (anti-lock brakes) and traditional braking systems are basically identical. In an emergency stopping situation, two distinctly different techniques are required. With traditional brakes, which still can be found on pre-2004 model cars, avoiding brake lock up may require the pumping technique, but the driver must lift off the brake if steering is required to avoid an obstacle. 

Anti-lock Breaking Systems, which became common in in the U.S. in 2004 and mandatory in 2013, allows the driver to press the brake pedal as hard as possible, holding it there and allowing the computer to pump the brakes while still maintaining steering effectiveness. Think of ABS as “allows you to brake and steer.” Remember that ABS can't perform miracles — if you feel ABS engaging during every day driving, slow down, because you are exceeding the reasonable speed for the conditions. 

One day, Crash Imminent Braking may be a standard feature in most cars. But even if that’s the case, many basic safety tips will remain unchanged.

Keep both hands on the wheel and keep the wheel turned where you want your car to go. While it may sound overly simple, it could help you in a skid. 

While manual transmissions may provide greater control to assist with braking, be careful when using downshifting to slow the vehicle. Gear changes, particularly abrupt ones, can upset a vehicle's balance and cause a skid, especially in turns. 

More Safety Considerations:

  • Before you leave your driveway, scrape the ice and snow from every window and the exterior rearview mirrors, not just a small patch on the windshield. Don't forget to remove snow from headlights and brake lights. 
  • Try to remove ice and snow from your shoes before getting in your vehicle. As they melt, they create moisture buildup, causing windows to fog on the inside. You can reduce this fog by turning the air recirculation switch to the OFF position. This brings in drier fresh air. You can also run the defroster mode on your heater, because defrost uses the AC to dry the air, then runs it through the heater core to heat it, brining warm, dry air into the cabin. In this way, the defroster serves as a dehumidifier.
  • As always, you and your passengers should all wear seat belts with both lap and shoulder straps. Pull them snug to ensure they work properly. 
  • Adjust headrests. Rear-end collisions are common in winter driving, and a properly adjusted headrest can prevent or reduce neck injuries. 
  • Before you shift into gear, plan the best route to your destination. Avoid hills, bridges and congested areas if possible. 
  • Although your radio can provide helpful traffic information, it can also be a distraction. Because driving is more of a mental skill than a physical one, you may want to keep it off. 
  • Don't use your phone when driving on ice or snow. Even when you are hands-free, you need to concentrate on driving, not on conversation. 
  • Drive slowly and remember that posted speed limits identify the maximum speed allowed when weather conditions are ideal. Law enforcement agencies can write citations to motorists driving the posted speed limit if weather conditions warrant a slower speed. 
  • Be alert to the actions of other drivers. Anticipate cars coming from side streets and put extra distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you. If someone is too close behind you, don't speed up — slow down or let them go around you. 
  • To make sure other drivers see you, always drive with your lights on. At night and in fog and heavy snow, low beams may be more effective than high beams. 

Watch a professional driver tackle winter road conditions on a snow handling course in Hokkaido, Japan. 

Keep your vehicle stocked with simple emergency equipment in case you stall or have an accident. Consider keeping these items in your vehicle:

  • Blanket and extra clothes 
  • Flashlight
  • Snacks 
  • Water to stay hydrated
  • Flares 
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Small shovel 
  • Windshield scraping device
  • Tow rope 
  • Bag of sand or cat litter for traction 
  • Long jumper cables 
  • Non-perishable snacks

If you do have trouble, run the engine only for brief periods to generate heat. Carbon monoxide can accumulate more easily in a nonmoving vehicle. Check your vehicle's owner's manual for information about your engine and recommendations for emergency situations.