Do you know how to drive safely in snow and ice or other suboptimal conditions, and are you well-equipped with winter driving safety tips to keep you and your family safe on the road during the coldest months of the year? The process should be on every Maryland driver’s mind as the seasons shift. If you aren’t sure if you’re prepared, now is the time to refresh your winter driving skills and check that your vehicle’s emergency kit is properly stocked.
Sheathed in ice or covered in blankets of snow, even familiar roads can suddenly seem strange once cold weather strikes. Safe winter driving through the harshest weather can reduce your anxiety and make sure you and your family make it to your destinations.
Why Roads Are So Treacherous in the Winter
Vehicle tires in direct contact with the road surface create friction. It’s that friction that gives your wheels traction on the road, and anything that interferes with that direct contact reduces said traction. Here’s what you need to keep in mind to make sure you’re practicing safe winter driving:
- Rain, snow, slush, and ice all come between a car’s tires and the road surface while you’re driving, reducing friction and therefore traction.
- A big part of winter driving safety lies in knowing what to expect when roads are covered in snow or ice.
- In summer, moisture that falls on a road will soon evaporate without a trace.
- The same thing doesn’t happen in winter: Colder temperatures invite that moisture to stick around as snow and ice.
- The freezing point of water is 32°F (0°C).
- Any time moisture is falling at or below that temperature, ice will start to form on roadways.
- If salt is used to melt snow and ice, the result will be wet, slushy roads — often with a layer of ice below, which makes driving in winter conditions extremely hazardous.
- Hard-packed snow is often just as slippery as ice.
- Clear snow and ice (also called “black ice“) can be nearly invisible, extremely hazardous, and can form on cold surfaces like roads even when the air temperature is above freezing.
- A freezing drizzle, fog, and even the condensation from cars idling at a stoplight can cause black ice to form.
- It can also occur whenever precipitation is melting and then refreezing.
Nighttime temperatures generally stay below freezing even after sunny, relatively warm days. This increases the likelihood of encountering ice-sheathed or snow covered roads after sunset, which means you need to make sure you are driving with caution to stay safe.
12 Winter Driving Safety Tips
There are steps you can take to help protect yourself and your family during winter weather. Knowing and practicing these winter driving tips just might keep you out of an accident this season!
1. Stay on top of vehicle maintenance tasks. Skipping routine maintenance increases the chance of a breakdown this winter and decreases safety. Make sure you have the correct antifreeze mixture, understand your anti-lock brakes, top off all essentials fluids as needed, and check your tire pressure regularly to ensure they are property inflated.
2. Invest in winter tires for all four wheels of your vehicle. The tread on winter, or snow, tires offer better traction and safer braking, which improves your car’s handling when driving in the snow.
3. Have chains on hand if you either live in a mountainous area or plan to visit one this winter. Chains offer an unrivaled grip on slippery slopes and can be a game-changer in helping you stop in winter driving conditions.
4. Don’t use cruise control when driving conditions are wet, icy, or otherwise compromised by winter conditions. If your vehicle starts to skid, the function will accelerate to try to maintain a constant speed. This will just make the spin worse, and trying to disengage the cruise control can cause you to lose even more control.
5. Slow down when driving in winter weather and stay alert. Even with season-appropriate snow tires or chains, your vehicle doesn’t have the same traction on snowy roads or ice as it would when driving on dry pavement. Also, accelerating and braking slowly gives you more control.
6. Allow yourself a safety margin by leaving earlier and taking a little extra time for the drive.
7. Watch out for inexperienced winter drivers and people rushing through holiday chores. Always be prepared for someone near you to start skidding uncontrollably in any road conditions (regardless of whether you’re currently in bad weather). If you’re paying close attention, you have a better chance of avoiding them.
8. Be particularly careful when approaching overpasses. Even when the rest of the road is dry, there may be patches of black ice hiding in the shade beneath them. A careless driver who hits one of those patches too fast could suddenly lose control right in front of you.
9. Always allow extra following distance between cars when the road conditions are slick. You want time to be able to apply the brake pedal to stop without skidding into the vehicle in front of you.
10. Grip the steering wheel firmly with both hands. If your car hits an icy patch and starts to swerve, you’ll have a better chance of controlling it.
11. Always turn into a skid. If your vehicle is suddenly swerving to the right, you should turn the steering wheel to the right also until your car rights itself or comes to a complete stop.
12. Our best tip for winter driving? Always expect the unexpected in ice and snow!
Follow these 12 cold weather driving safety tips and you have a better chance of making it through winter unscathed.
Keep a Winter Emergency Kit in Your Vehicle
Preparedness is key to arriving at your destination safely. Having emergency supplies on hand can make the difference between an uncomfortable night stuck in a snowdrift and a deadly one. At the minimum, your winter emergency kit should include the following:
- Blankets (wool and/or heat-reflective survival blankets) are an essential part of your emergency kit. You should have a minimum of one for each person in your vehicle before you traverse icy roads.
- Extra clothing for the driver and every passenger. Ideally, this clothing will be wool because of its exceptional warmth retention abilities. Plan on hats, scarves, mittens, and socks at a minimum. Leather gloves, warm sweaters, and waterproof pants will help keep you warm and dry if you have to go outside for any reason.
- Calorie-rich snacks and water to help keep you warm and hydrated. Water bottles can freeze without bursting as long as there’s room inside for the water to expand as it freezes.
- Always carry a good, basic first-aid kit and a portable cell phone charger.
- Good visibility is vital, and keeping an ice scraper and snow brush in your vehicle will help keep those windows, mirrors, lenses, and windshield wipers clear every time you get in the car.
- A tire pressure gauge and compressor to keep your wheels properly inflated can help if your pressure gets low.
- A set of traction mats tucked beneath your tires will often provide enough traction to get you unstuck, should you happen to get stuck on snowy or icy pavement.
- Keep on hand an LED flashlight with fresh batteries, jumper cables, B/C rated fire extinguisher, road flares, and a small tarp.
- A small, sturdy shovel is useful for keeping snow away from your exhaust pipe.
- Carry a reflective safety vest and at least four reflective triangles to warn other drivers away from you and your vehicle in case you get stuck in the snow.
- Keep your gas tank full. This may allow you to run the heat intermittently as the temperature drops until help arrives. Make sure your car is situated safely — i.e. not completely covered by an avalanche of snow — before doing so to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, however. Keeping your gas tank full will also prevent your fuel from freezing when your car isn’t running. Anything under a quarter tank is at risk.
- Drive slowly as you use traction mats or other methods to get unstuck from a snowy road or parking lot.
- Check your tire pressure regularly, even on winter tires. Changing temperatures can make the air levels fluctuate, which can lead to unsafe driving if weather conditions turn.
Are there other items specific to the comfort and safety of you and your family? Be sure to add them to your emergency kit or, in the case of essential medications, carry them on your person.
What Happens if You Need Help?
Unfortunately, you can follow all these winter driving precautions and still end up stuck somewhere. If you find yourself in need of roadside assistance or towing, contact Geyers Towing for licensed and certified professional help. Our experts will help you get home safely and will gladly answer any of your winter driving questions along the way.