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Road Safety Tips for the Winter

Updated on December 29, 2012

Here are some road safety tips for the winter, no matter where you are.

In some climates, snow and frost is never a problem, but in others, can be.

When we think of winter driving, we think of snow, ice, strong winds and other negative forces of nature, but in many climates, winter driving involves driving in the dark and in wet conditions more often than not.

If the rest of year is also wet, then winter driving is not so much different.

Most sites dealing with road safety while winter driving, emphasis the importance of snow tyres (tires) and snow chains, with the general assumption that snow is going to present for months and that the driver should prepare for it.

The reality for most of us globally is that we see precious little snow and ice on the roads in winter, but when it appears it can be devastating to transport movements.

In countries well-equipped and used to dealing with winter conditions, the chances are that the gritters and snow ploughs will have been out and cleared roads long before the commuter traffic builds up in the morning.

In those cases, the average driver will find his passageway cleared and driving conditions much unchanged from normal.

This article deals with road safety tips for the winter for those people who live in areas of lesser snowfall, driving with their normal year round tyres and not snow tires.

roads covered in snow
roads covered in snow | Source

Use public transport instead of driving

The first rule of winter driving in snowy and icy conditions, is do not drive unless you absolutely have to.

If you live in an area of good public transport, the use it, even if you normally take the car to drive to work.

Public transport drivers, whether you choose taxis, buses or trains, are used to driving in adverse conditions.

You stand a much better chance of getting to your destination safely if you use public transport, even if it takes you longer.

Things to carry in the trunk (boot) when winter driving

Even if space is at a premium, one of the best road safety tips while driving in winter is to pack in a shovel or spade, as well as a large sackful of sand/salt/cat litter.

The assumption would be that snow may be so deep that you cannot move.

The sand/salt/cat litter is designed to be placed underneath your drive wheels (depending on whether or not your car has front or rear drive - if you are not sure, check the manual that came with your vehicle).

This will allow your wheels to gain some traction on a slippery surface.

The shovel or spade is to help you dig your way our of a snow drift, or just to dig through hard-packed snow under your wheels.

Spare oils and water. It is good practise to always carry a container of water. You never know when something could go wrong with your car's radiator, resulting in the engine overheating.

You should also carry small containers of oil, automatic transmission fluid, steering fluid and brake fluid. That way, should anything catastrophic happen to any of those systems while you are miles from anywhere, you will have enough in reserve to get your car safely off the highway.

Safety precautions while driving

If you must drive, perhaps because you are going a route not covered by public transport, or have to be there at an early time, then you need to prepare well in advance.

Where snow is concerned, you should always imagine that the worst will happen, and be prepared for it.

You should check:

  • Weather forecasts - this is first and foremost. Even if you live in an area of little snow, winter weather can be unpredictable. Even if you live in a city, make a habit of always checking the weather forecast before you leave home. Snow and ice can descend pretty suddenly.
  • Your tyre tread. Bald tyres are more or less useless on surface water, and even less use in snowy and icy conditions. Buy the best tires you can afford, with a deep thread of at least 1/8th of an inch. Always keep an eye on your tyres threads, for signs of wear and tear.
  • Your engine oils and fluid levels. Checking their levels should be routine to you. Assuming you have never made a habit of looking under the hood (bonnet) of you car, now is as good a time as any. With winter approaching, anti-freeze should have been added to the water coolant in your engine. This is to prevent it from freezing in adverse winter conditions. If you have not had it added, do it yourself, especially now that the weather has turned colder. Make sure your engine oil level is within the acceptable levels shown on your dipstick. Also check your brake fluid and steering fluids and make sure there is enough. If you have an automatic transmission, check the fluid levels for it too. If you have power steering, then it is the same automatic transmission fluid you will need for both.
  • Brakes. While braking is something you will want to avoid when driving in winter, you still need to have brakes in tip-top condition.
  • Wiper blades. Worn wiper blades will not only be less efficient at shifting snowflakes from your windscreen, they are more likely to cause problems when windscreens are icing over. They are inexpensive to buy, but can make winter driving so much easier and safer.
  • Car heaters. Believe it or not, things can go wrong with your interior car heaters. If you are travelling a long distance without an interior heater, you at putting yourself at risk of frostbite. Get your heater fixed.

Road safety winter driving tips video

Things to carry inside your car

Extra clothing is a must. Perhaps a blanket, gloves, scarf, warm headwear. Carry spares for each passenger in your car.

Food. Carry a flask of warm soup or coffee, and some sandwiches. Even relatively short journeys can end up in tragedy should blizzard conditions hit. Be prepared. Warm carbohydrate-rich foods can save your life. Get in the habit of always carrying a family-sized bar of chocolate in the glove compartment. You never know when it will be needed to save your life.

Spare bulbs. It is the law in most countries to carry spare headlight/tail-light bulbs when out and about. They can save your life in adverse weather conditions.

Emergency first aid kit. Most commercial vehicles are required by law to carry an emergency first aid kit. Make a habit of always carrying one in your car You never know when it could your or someone's else's life.

Car fire extinguisher. Again this is a legal requirement for public service vehicles, but not a requirement for private cars. Your car's electrics could short at any time, especially when driving in winter conditions. A car fire could be a killer in winter time, so carry a fire extinguisher.

Driving on Ice

The most important aspect of driving on ice, is to KNOW you are driving on ice.

Black ice is a killer because it doesn't look like ice. You think the road surface is wet, not icy.

More people die through slipping on black ice than through driving on snow.

The main difference is SPEED. Drivers automatically slow down while driving on snow-covered roads, but black ice does not look like ice, or snow, and so drivers carry on as normal.

Then when their wheels suddenly lose traction, they find themselves travelling at too high a speed to do anything constructive to be able to get out of the spin before their car leaves the road or smashes into oncoming traffic.

It is absolutely VITAL to know when you are driving on ice.

How to know you are driving on ice

Assuming that you are on driving on a motorway with huge overhead gantries flashing 'risk of black ice' to warn you, just how do you know you are driving on black ice?

There are three obvious things you can do.

  1. Fit your car with a temperature sensor, if it doesn't have one. These sensors are normally fitted under the front of the vehicle, and can give you a very good indication of the outside air temperature. Whether you are used to using the Celsius or Fahrenheit scale, I strongly recommend you use the Celsius (centrigrade) scale for freezing points, because it is easier to remember. Freezing point in 0ºC. If the air temperature is just above that - say 3ºC or 4ºC - then there is every possibility the ground temperature is at zero, which is freezing point.
  2. If you don't have a temperature sensor on your car, use your hand. It might seem less than scientific, but it works. Periodically open your window, and put your hand out while the vehicle is in motion. Do this year round so that you have the experience to know. Our fingers are extremely sensitive to temperature changes. When the air temperature drops, you will know it. When the air temperature has dropped significantly, there is always the risk of black ice.
  3. So, now you have checked the air temperature either by hand or by machine, and you know it is colder. But is there ice on the road surface? Now you have to use your eyes. You must slow down at this point and assume there is ice on the road, even if you can't see it. If you hit a section of ice, the chances are that the first thing you will notice is total loss of control of the steering, so slow down. A low speed bump will not cause anywhere near the damage a high speed bump will. Look for white ice. Sometimes the only indication is the hint of a sparkle off the road. The sparkle could come from a street lamp, from your headlights, or from the sun.

heavy snow on highway
heavy snow on highway | Source

The different types of snow

If you look around the web, you will find loads of advice about driving in snow, but very little about the type of snow.

There is:

  • snow with ice underneath
  • fresh snow with no ice
  • snow with ice on top
  • hard packed snow that has frozen
  • hard packed snow that is de-frosting

The absolute worst is hard-packed snow that has frozen again on top.

You see a flat snow base that hundreds of vehicles have already passed over, and the temptation is to speed up. After all, all those cars made it before you.

But that layer of ice has turned the track into a death trap that will kill you if you go too fast, or see your wheels unable to grip the surface.

The easiest snow to drive in is soft, freshly fallen snow.

It only becomes dangerous when the snow lying levels fall above the height of your exhaust pipe. So long as you keep your vehicle moving, the snow will not block the exhaust and you can continue your journey.

If you have to stop, for whatever reason, use that shovel you kept in the trunk to remove the snow from around your exhaust pipe before you move off again.

The most important tip for safe winter driving is to take it slow, take is easy, and keep your speed down.

Drive as if your brakes don't work.

You actually do not want to use your brakes when winter driving. Use engine braking where possible. Engine braking means changing gear to a lower gear than normal. Even automatic transmissions allow you to use gears 1 or 2.

If you are in a slide situation, where you have lost control of your car, depress the clutch if you are driving a manual car, or knock it into neutral if driving an automatic.

This will knock your car out of gear, taking away the power from the set of wheels the drive is on.

Then turn your steering wheel into the direction your car is sliding.

You will be amazed how well that works. You can feel your car re-gaining traction on the road surface, and then you can turn the wheel back into the direction you wanted it to go in.

Winter driving poll

When the snow is thick on the ground, do you..

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    • Torrs13 profile image

      Tori Canonge 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      Ugh, I absolutely hate driving in the winter. Thankfully, I now live in a state where it snows maybe once or twice a year and they typically shutdown the whole city at that point. I did live in a cold state for a few years and I was driving a small hatchback that didn't have winter tires or anything. I lived on a hill at the time and had to drive up that hill every day after work. Well, let's just say that I got used to sliding and driving on the ice! You gave some great advice here. I completely agree that if you don't have to go outside in it, then you shouldn't.

    • IzzyM profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from UK

      Oh no, what a combination - wind and black ice. Glad you're all OK and survived unscathed. It could so easily have had a different result!

    • K J Page profile image

      K J Page 

      6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Very good info.....I was out driving in the late hours last Wed. n several areas the run right along the river and a here the wind blows hard from down valley, drifting snow across the road along the hilly corners and polishing the flat unprotected road creating patches of black ice. Hit one of those when a strong gust of wind slammed the vehicle and sent us sideways into the opposite lane - little traffic and less at night but still a scary episode!!


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