Winter driving conditions are the bane of anyone that lives in the northeast, the Snowbelt or any mountainous region in North America. Driving a vehicle in snow and ice safely is a difficult skill to master, and the most dangerous part of winter driving is the fact that the driver next to you may be driving unsafely. We’ve covered the art of preparing a modern vehicle for winter conditions, but now it is time to explain how to use your fresh, winter-tire-equipped vehicle in the conditions it is fully prepared for. By the time the snow starts to fall, you’ll want to call Santa up and tell him to take a year off, you got this one.
The first and most important step in safe winter driving is actually getting your car out of the biggest snow pile you’ve ever seen in your life and onto the road. Having a shovel handy will expedite this process significantly, so we recommend keeping a small, folding shovel in the trunk. Even then you could still get stuck, so the following tips will be helpful. If you do not have a shovel handy, start by clearing as much snow as possible away from the front and rear of your vehicle using your hands or feet. Take a look at the path you must pull the car out of. If the snow is higher than the ground clearance of the bottom of the car, clear as much away as possible but be sure not to pack the snow, this will cause the snow to harden and turn to ice. When you first start to pull out of the spot, keep your wheels straight if the area permits and slowly accelerate to give your tires a chance to gain traction. If you accelerate to fast your tires will slip, digging a deeper hole in the snow and creating more ice underneath. If you can’t seem to gain traction, spreading sand, salt, or kitty litter under your tires will help melt the snow and gain the needed traction to get your vehicle going. If all else fails you can try using your floor mats for traction. Place a pair of them in front of and behind your drive tires. Use caution when applying this method, make sure no one is standing behind the vehicle, the floor mats may shoot out from under the tires.
Just like in many other aspects of life, the best way to improve your winter driving skills is practice, practice, practice. If you have yet to experience even mild winter conditions, or you are just learning to drive, take some time to practice if the opportunity presents itself. Take the vehicle you will use through the winter months to a large, open parking lot and practice driving with a seasoned driver. Take time to push the vehicle a little harder than you normally would on the road to get a feel for what braking and steering will be like in these conditions. Even try steering our of a skid or two if you feel like getting the blood pumping a little bit!
If you own a rear-wheel drive vehicle, try putting a few sand bags in your trunk directly over your rear axle to increase tire traction. Take another few minutes driving down your block, you will have more weight to slow down potentially increasing the required braking distance. A good general rule of thumb while driving behind another vehicle is to double the normal following distance. This has been shown to decrease the potential of an accident during bad driving conditions by almost half. If you find yourself hydroplaning, or your tires are slipping when you are accelerating from a stop, ease of the gas slowly until the tires regain traction; do not apply the brakes or this could cause you to spin out.
If you do find yourself sideways in the snow, this means that your car entered a skid and you made all the wrong moves. A skid occurs when the rear end of a vehicle losses traction and starts to slide toward the front end. When this happens you must turn into the skid. Example: Lets say you are making a left turn and your vehicle losses control. You will start to feel the vehicle slide toward the right. Naturally you will want to turn your wheel to the left to try and get back to the position you were originally in. This will actually make the skid worse. When losing control making a left turn, your back end will slide out to the right. If you turn your wheel to the left, you are turning the front of your vehicle through the skid, creating a spinning top like motion (the front of your vehicle will continue to slide left as your rear will continue to slide right). To prevent this, you must turn your wheel in the direction of the skid (the direction your back end is trying to slide), to prevent your rear from continuing to slide toward the front of the vehicle. When turning into a skid, it is only necessary to turn your wheel slightly. Turning the wheel to much will cause the rear end to quickly spin in the other direction, leaving no time for your tires to regain traction.
Always keep a few tools in the trunk just in case, emergency kits can be bought pretty cheap with a couple tools that might save the day every once in a while. It is also a good idea to make sure your cellphone is charged before you leave the house, and always let someone know where you are headed. The most important thing to remember when driving in wintry conditions is that safety always comes first. Having your car and its driver prepared for any weather is key to surviving the winter months in any area that sees snow. Staying off the road in the event of extreme conditions is the safest thing to do, but when that is not possible, the steps we outlined will help you arrive at your destination safely.