Driving on Snow and Ice - Tips and Tricks

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Snow and ice are two completely different driving surfaces, but they both fall under the category of "Winter driving" and both pose one common risk - skidding. Snow that is falling, as well as on the road, poses the added risk of visibility problems. "Invisible" ice (that very thin layer of ice that isn't visible, also known as "black ice") poses its own risk, simply because drivers are unaware of it until there is a skid or "spin out". Even with the different problems posed by snow and ice, there are some common rules that make driving on either safer:

1. Drive at reduced speed.

That 65-mph speed limit on the signs on the highway does not apply when roads are covered with ice, snow, or both. There are reasons reduce highway speed limits are temporarily changed when roads are hazardous; and drivers who haven't happened to have heard what those speed limits are should use their own good sense and keep their highway-driving speed lower than the speeds posted.

Accidents that occur at higher speeds are more dangerous than those occurring at lower speeds. Stopping and slowing down is more difficult (sometimes impossible) on slippery roads. Besides generally inviting spin-outs and skids, high speed can make stopping for brake lights (even those seemingly well at a distance) impossible; while reduced speed can prevent an unnecessary accident. Drivers need to keep in mind that, besides not wanting to get hurt themselves, the car into which they "slam" may be a small car or have children in the backseat. In other words, driving too fast on slippery roads not only risks the life of the driver (and any passengers in his car), but the life/lives of others, as well.

Even without having to come to a complete stop, the need to slow down at too-high speeds is more likely to result in disaster, because applying brakes (even only a little) a high speeds can pose more hazards than doing the same thing at lower speeds.

Brakes aren't the only problem that cause problems at higher speeds. Even the slightest turn of the wheels can pose more problems at higher speeds. Hitting a particularly slippery patch of road, or driving over any chunks of ice or snow are yet other possibilities that are bigger problems when speed is too high.

2. Don't Turn The Wheel Too Suddenly While Driving

On normal roads it is natural to "whip the wheel around" as we turn a corner. On slippery roads it is important to turn the wheel slowly, smoothly, and deliberately, Thinking about how, as the wheel moves 1" (and smoothly) from one position to the next, the wheels are being THAT slowly and deliberately turned can help a driver "make a mental connection" between how slowly to turn the wheel and how slowly the car's wheels should be turning. Exactly HOW slowly to turn the steering wheel depends on how slippery the road is.

It's a good thing to just keep in mind that no "sudden moves" should be made on slippery roads, whether those moves involve the steering wheel or brakes.

3. Keep As Much Distance Between Your Vehicle and Others' As Possible

Avoiding accidents in any weather always involves finding ways to "increase the time and space between your vehicle and others". Driving more slowly, of course, increases "time between your vehicle and other vehicles. "Hanging back" from the car in front of you, and aiming to avoid situations where you're driving alongside other cars increase distance. Yours is not the only vehicle that may skid, so staying away from other moving cars as much as possible helps reduce the possibility of even fender-benders.

Even in stop-and-go traffic, remember to aim to stop the car farther back than one ordinarily would. This could make the difference between a fender-bender and none if the car slides a little farther forward before coming to a stop.

4. Driving Uphill (Particularly Up Steep Hills)

Drive uphill slowly, following the "no-sudden-moves" rule. Keep in mind that stopping on a hill can result in the car's becoming stuck and even sliding in any number of ways. One of the best ways to avoid becoming stuck (and sliding) when driving uphill is to make every attempt to avoid any need to stop.

Getting half-way up a steep hill, only to have to stop because cars in front of you stopped for red lights can mean your getting stuck. "Hanging back" by driving slowly until you know there is nothing to block your way to the top of the hill can mean getting there without getting stuck. Having one or more cars ahead while you're driving uphill can mean that any one (or more) of them getting stuck, causing you to have to stop. A set of lights at the top of the hill can mean, as previously mentioned, a long row of stopped cars that extends down to the most slippery part of the hill. A school bus ahead is likely to stop several times. The steeper the hill, the wiser it is to "hang back" until you know you see nothing that may require your stopping until you get to the top.

5. Driving Downhill (Particularly Steep Hills)

Start with as slow a speed as possible, and switch into lower gears to slow down when necessary. Try not to use the brakes if possible, but when it's necessary to use them do so from a low-gear position. Try to leave as much room as possible between your car and the one in front. In fact, on very steep hills it is wisest (when possible) to simply "hang back" until the bottom of the hill is clear. Driving down a very icy hill is one of, if not THE, most difficult aspects of Winter driving. In general, and when possible, it is often best to find alternate routes (particularly in areas where plows and sanders aren't as likely to have improved the conditions of a particular hill).

6. Curved Roads

While it is, of course, extremely important for all drivers to remain on their own side of the road, avoiding "hugging the shoulder" of curved roads can help minimize the need to use the steering wheel more than is necessary (or good on slippery roads). On very winding roads it is particularly important not to drive too close to the center of the road; but when it's reasonable and safe, driving just a little farther out from the shoulder can make reduce the need to steer (and the increased movement that may cause sliding/skidding).

7. Aim For At Least Some Dry Ground

Snow and ice don't always cover the whole road; when they don't it's always wise to aim to have as many of your wheels on dry ground as possible (without, of course, leaving your side of the road or otherwise ignoring things no driver should be ignoring). There are times when a few feet of road my be covered in ice or snow, but shifting the car over a foot or two (if reasonable and safe) can mean having at least two tires on dry ground.

8. Be Alert and Aware

While it is always vital that any driver keeps his eyes and mind on the road; Winter driving, in particular, requires a certain degree of alertness and awareness, with regard to potential problems/"scenarios". Driving or sliding into a parking lot or front yard (with nobody in it) is generally better than plowing into the car in front of you. Brush alongside the road, empty parking lots, and soft snowbanks are generally safer to hit than other cars or sturdy trees.

Being aware that snow plowing (or snow falling from snowbanks) may leave chunks of snow (that later freezes) along the side of the road is a good idea. When the roads are particularly treacherous, a quick "scan" of what's alongside those roads can help a driver see a safer place to steer the car in the event he can't stop. "Scanning" for things like lakes and pond near the side of the road can make drivers aware that slowing down is advised. Careening is less likely to result in ending up in ponds/lakes at slower speeds that are less likely to break through guardrails or other barriers. When there is even the possibility of getting stuck on railroad tracks at crossings, make sure other cars have cleared out enough to keep your car moving as you cross the tracks and clear them.

Being aware of oncoming vehicles that seeming to be moving erratically, is of course, important. This doesn't have to be "wildly erratic" motion, but there is a general, normal, smoothness that comes with normal control of a car; and any oncoming car that appears to deviate from (even slightly) is one to keep an eye on (and possibly be ready to dodge).

Be aware that daytime melting of snow often means ice at night.

Be aware the even when highways and main roads have been well cleared side streets and back roads can remain treacherous.

Keep in mind that high snowbanks make it difficult for other drivers to see your car, and that they generally make seeing anything more difficult. Driving when there are very high snowbanks requires particular caution.

9. Be Smart

Realize that visibility can be a problem in Winter, and make your car as visible as possible. Use lights during storms. When driving on winding, rural, roads at night use high beams (to help others around a curve know you're coming); but be ready to switch to low beams as soon as you know the other driver could be blinded by them.

Make sure your windshield wiper blades are new (or good as new) at all times, and use care when scraping or chopping ice around them.

Even if you're "only running from the house to the car, and then from the car into the office" (and therefore wouldn't seem to need outdoor Winter gear and boots), keep a pair of gloves, a hat, and a pair of shoes/boots suitable for Winter walking in your car. Breakdowns happen, and even road-service "rescuers" can't always show up very quickly. You never know when you may need to walk.

Clear off your car before driving. Large sheets of snow that fall off onto roads are hazardardous for other drivers, and when they slide down and cover your windshield they are obviously deadly to you and others as well.

If there is more than one way to get where you need to be, decide whether highway driving or back-road driving may be safer at under the circumstances. Highways are often well cleared and sanded when back roads remain treacherous. At the same time, there are circumstances under which slower, back-road, driving is far safer than gambling on slippery highways.

If possible, stay on roads that have businesses and homes alongside, rather than using more desolate roads. Roads and highways with thick woods alongside can mean sliding into those woods without having the car seen by passers-by (and sometimes even by police and others, who are looking for you).

Keep a well charged cell phone (ideally with GPS tracking function turned on) with you when you drive. If you're the type to forget your cell phone, buy a cheap one for your car.

Make sure the gas tank is full, or at least well above half full.

A GPS device that will allow you to see where you are, should you get lost on a snowy road, is a good idea too.

In addition to the usual emergency items (flares, bright spotlights, flashlights, a blanket) recommended for driving in all kinds of weather, keep a shovel or two (one for you, and one for anyone willing to help dig you out if you get stuck somewhere) in your car.

A sturdy scraper and brush, and a back-up scraper or two, are must-have's, as are a can of de-icer for the windshield and a full reservoir of non-freezing windshield washer fluid. (In Winter, it isn't just the rain and snow that make windshields need clearing. Melted snow and dirty slush have a way of splashing (or being splashed) onto windshields even on the sunniest or days.) Lock de-icer is important; but while a container of it inside the car will help with a frozen lock or two, it won't help you get into your car when all the door locks are frozen. Keeping a small container of lock de-icer in your purse, briefcase, or other bag is wisest.

Since the chances of sliding into woods along the side of the road are better in Winter, it isn't a bad idea to keep a jar or peanutbutter and something like crackers in the car. A couple of bottles of drinking water isn't a bad idea, particularly if the trip will involve driving where you just can't get out of the car and walk to the nearest business. Even with the chances of skidding, undetected, into nearby woods are remote; Winter driving (particularly during storms) often involves long stretches of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. (Massachusetts residents old enough to recall The Blizzard of '78 also recall hundreds of cars being stranded on one of the state's major highways.) So, sliding into nearby woods aside, it is never a bad idea to have a snack and something hot to drink when driving in Winter.

Make sure your exhaust pipe does not have snow clogging it. Vehicles that have been buried in snow (particular those that have been plowed in) may have dangerous clogs. Speaking of exhaust pipes, do not sit in a running car that is parked with its exhaust pipe to close to snow banks.

There are products designed to offer traction to tires that are stuck on, or in, ice; but anything that will offer some traction can help. Keeping something in the car for this particularly challenging situation is always a good idea. Rubber floor mats and thick cloths can help. Sand, of course, helps. Salt is effective, but be aware that a bag of salt that gets even slightly wet will eat through the floor of a car or its trunk.

10. Learn What To Do During A Skid

Preventing skids is easier than managing them, but knowing what to do in a skid can help you regain control of the car more quickly. All skids are the not same, and overcoming some natural tendencies during a skid can be one of the major challenges. Expert advise on managing skids is available through driving programs, pamphlets, and online.

DMV.org offers tips on recovering from a skid. ( http://www.dmv.org/how-to-guides/controlling-skid.php)

The Canada Safety Council offers information on Winter driving, as well as a pamphlet on handling skids. (http://www.safety-council.org/news/campaigns/nsdw-08.html)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Driving - Preparations and Tips

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