Winter Driving Safety Tips

The winter months present unique hazards. It's important to be prepared for the worst, and to know how to mitigate the dangers of snowy and icy roads.

cars driving in snow

Getting Your Tires Ready for Winter

Since your tires are the spot where your vehicle meets the road, having healthy tires is vital for safe driving during winter weather. Check your treads for wear by using a ruler or a US quarter. The treads should go at least 1/8 of an inch down.

When using a quarter, face George Washington’s head towards you upside down and insert the coin edge into the tread. The coin should sink far enough down into the tread so that the top of George’s hair is at least touching the tread edge. A tread that is deep enough to travel down to George’s forehead is even better, but one that leaves any amount of room between the tread and George’s hair has too much wear and you should replace it.

Also look out that the wear is even on all spots of all four tires. Uneven wear usually means that the tires have not been balanced and rotated properly.

For areas that are going to experience ten or more days of below freezing temperatures during the winter (that’s most of the US other than South Florida, South Texas, Southern California and Hawaii), you should probably invest in some extra safety measures for your tires. Keep a set of tire chains on hand. All weather tires also handle adverse weather conditions better than normal tires, and work well with snow chains.

For areas hit by regular snowfall throughout the winter, investing in a set of snow tires will help you get better performance and safer levels of reliability during wet, snowy, or icy conditions. There are several options when it comes to snow tires:

  • Regular Snow Tires — These are made from a softer rubber, and they have highly specialized treads with thousands of micro pores that increase traction in wet or snowy conditions. Many tires feature special grooves to push out snow and moisture from the center of the tire to the sides. This feature decreases the odds of skidding or hydroplaning. Other snow tires use small patches of fine tread patterns to make slick roads more reliable to drive upon. Experts generally advise you to use snow tires for city or suburban driving where road surfaces are better maintained.
  • Siped Tires — Siping is the process of making thousands of tiny, straight cuts along the tread surface of your tire. This technique increases the surface area of your tread and also makes the exterior edge more flexible, much like the softer rubber of a snow tire. You can purchase pre-siped tires, or have a professional sipe your tires. All-season tires and regular snow tires are both generally used for siping.
  • Studded Tires — The most hardcore of all snow tires have tiny metal studs that protrude from the surface of the tread. Like snow chains, these “bite” through the snow and ice to make better contact with the road during bad weather. However, the metal studs also mean that there is less rubber touching the road surface. This fact means that studded tires are better suited for rougher, rural roads rather than the slicker asphalt surfaces of the city. Many municipalities ban studded tires because they can damage the road surface.

Remember to use the same type of tire for all four tires — be they radials, snow tires, siped, etc. — or else you risk reduced traction and an increased likelihood of skidding.

Getting Started in the Cold

Older cars used to require a complete “winterization” process that meant changing out several components and all the fluids. Modern cars do not require such extensive preparation, but there are still several tasks worth performing.

The first step is to make sure that your vehicle will not have trouble starting. Cold weather reduces the strength of electrical charges and can make your vehicle have difficulty starting, especially on cold mornings. Check that your spark plug is clean and that your distributor is functioning properly to eliminate the most common trouble spots.

Your battery will also have a reduced charge during cold weather, making sluggish starts more likely. Check that your battery cables have no cracks and that your terminal connections are solid and reliable. You can also test your battery when the engine is off with a hydrometer to get an idea of its total charge. You should replace any batteries that have been having trouble during warm weather or that are more than four years old.

One way to ensure that your battery will not give you trouble during cold weather is to check its cold cranking amps (CCA) rating. This measurement indicates how well the battery will start during 0 degree Fahrenheit weather (-17 Celsius). A higher CCA rating means that the battery will have less trouble in cold conditions, when engine oil becomes thicker and the charge potential is lowered.

Check Your Fluids

Speaking of oil, climates that regularly dip below freezing require a special blend of winter engine oil. 5W30 is the typical recommendation for oil type, but the best oil to use can vary based on your vehicle and region. Consult your owner’s manual to see what your auto manufacturer recommends for your particular model.

Antifreeze is another vital component to keep an engine running in cold weather. Like the name suggests, this liquid chemical resists your fluids freezing in their lines and causing permanent damage. One can typically mix antifreeze coolant with water in a ratio of 60 percent coolant and 40 percent water. Consult a local automotive expert such as a repair garage or auto dealership to find the recommended mix for your area.

Other fluids that should be checked before winter are:

  • Brake
  • Steering
  • Transmission

Issues with any of these systems could trigger a dangerous situation on roads with reduced traction from snow or ice.

If you haven’t compared car insurance rates since last winter, you could be paying too much. Why not take a moment to compare quotes and lower your insurance rates?

Ensure Visibility

Outside of reduced traction, one of the most dangerous aspects of winter driving is reduced visibility. Snowy or blustery conditions tend to reduce view distance, while snow, frost and condensation can limit viewing from your windshield.

To make sure that you can see at all times during the winter, begin with the right equipment. Your windshield wipers should be able to handle snow or slush without leaving streaks. You can also mix in a small amount of antifreeze into your wiper fluid or buy a pre-mixed solution. Keep in mind, though, that some chemicals in antifreeze can damage certain types of auto paint after repeated exposure.

Another system that needs to work properly during the winter is your car’s heater. While most heat settings use the heat generated by the engine, you should be certain that your defrosting blowers can put out consistent hot air when you need it. Before driving, always wait for your windows to defrost completely.

A simple way to ensure visibility is to purchase an ice scraper. These devices normally cost between three and nine dollars but make a world of difference in the winter. Buy extras to stock in your garage, car and office to be certain that you’ll have one when you need it most.

Also, go through the effort to completely clear off snow and ice from your vehicle’s entire exterior rather than just a few patches before driving. Driving safely requires a full 360-degree view of the road outside of all windows. Scraping off a small “portal” just in front of the driver’s seat surrounds you with blind spots. Similarly, leaving snow on the roof of your car can mean that the snow will slide forward onto the windshield when braking and obstruct your view.

Emergency Survival Kit

Getting stranded from an accident or a vehicle malfunction is always inconvenient, but in the winter it can be deadly. To reduce your risk of hypothermia or other problems, keep a well-stocked emergency kit on hand that includes:

  • Basic tools
  • Tire repair kit
    • Stable car jack, such as the tripod model
    • Tire iron
  • Jumper cables — these should be rated for your battery’s voltage and tested regularly
  • Spare tire — fully inflated and with an adequate tread. Consider buying a full-size spare that is weather rated since a temporary “donut” spare can be useless in winter weather.
  • Flashlight — With the days darker and shorter, make sure that the flashlight that you should already have in your car is stocked with batteries and in full working order. Should you become stranded or need to make repairs in the dark, a flashlight proves indispensable.
  • Blankets or warm clothing — This is another item that should always be in your car that is doubly important to have in the winter. Keep enough blankets on hand for the typical amount of passengers, plus some extras to line the car in case of an extended emergency.
  • Water and food — A gallon of filtered water and a couple of energy bars can help you or your passengers stay nourished while waiting for help.
  • Flares, emergency signs or bright tape — Having your vehicle trapped in a snowstorm can make it hard to spot. Tie a colorful piece of fabric or tape to your antenna to help rescuers find you. Use any other attention-getting means available if you know that people are arriving shortly.

Winter Driving Safety

With your car properly prepared, it's still important to adjust your driving habits to remain safe in the winter months. Slowing down is key, but there's more to it than that. Cars handle very differently on snowy roads, and knowing how to adjust is important. Here is some general advice for driving in the snow:

  • Following Distance — The golden rule of two seconds of following distance is not enough on icy roads. The larger the gap between you and the car in front of you, the more time you'll have to react to any sudden movements. Try to keep between six and eight seconds distance between you and the other car, and increase this distance during icy or snowy conditions.
  • Braking — Your brakes will not work the same on snowy or icy roads. When brakes are forcefully applied, tires tend to lock up and vehicle control is lost. If your tires aren't spinning, it's impossible to control the direction of your vehicle. The solution is to apply gradual but firm pressure on your brakes and to expect it to take much longer than usual to bring your car to a stop.
  • Cornering — Traction is reduced for your vehicle while turning. Don’t make it worse by braking or accelerating while in the corner. Adjust your speed before entering the turn and use smooth gestures throughout the curve to prevent a skid.
  • Keeping Traction — Avoid fast acceleration that can make your tires spin. Especially avoid trying to “power up” steep hills by hitting the gas halfway through. Instead, gain enough speed before reaching the hill so that your momentum can carry you up the rest of the way.
  • 4WD and AWD — Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive systems are a huge help when accelerating in the snow, but they make no difference when cornering or braking. You are certainly better off if your car has one of them, but it's important not to get overconfident.
  • Black Ice — Bridges, areas in the shade, off-ramps, and intersections are all likely areas for black ice to form. Take special precautions when approaching these areas, and be alert for any loss of traction that may occur. Black ice is particularly prevalent in the morning commute hours.
  • Snow — Not all snow is created equal, and your car will behave differently depending on the type and amount of snow on the road. Slush is extremely dangerous—cars hydroplane easily and the slush is often mistaken for mere rain. If you see unusually large drops of rain, be careful. Compact snow, depending on the salting and sanding work done by your local department of transportation, is slightly better. All snow, however, demands great caution and preparation.
  • Freezing Rain — There is absolutely nothing more dangerous than freezing rain on a roadway. While uncommon in most areas, when freezing rain occurs, roads turn into virtual skating rinks. If at all possible, avoid any driving in freezing rain.

Following these precautions can reduce the likelihood of an accident or car troubles during the winter. However, you can never guarantee that you’ll always be safe during dangerous driving conditions. Avoid driving during snowstorms or freezing conditions if possible.

You should also consider extending your coverage to include weather-based collisions or even roadside assistance.

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