Cold weather can create some of the harshest driving conditions of the year. The months between October and February top the list for accidents, vehicle damage and injuries. Thousands of motorists are stranded on our nation’s streets and highways during the winter months. Some die, many others suffer injuries and frostbite. Still others are forced to endure delays from any number of scenarios.
Many of these situations can be avoided this winter by following these suggestions:
Stay off the road when traveler’s warnings are issued. When police and weather officials issue winter storm alerts, they mean business. Many motorists wind up stranded because they leave home or work after having been warned roads are impassible. If you’re away from home and road conditions suddenly become impassible, stay put. As much as you might want to get home, you won’t accomplish a thing getting stuck in a snowdrift halfway there.
Don’t bet your life – or anyone else’s – on a four-wheel drive vehicle. In a full-scale blizzard, you’re not much better off than someone in a conventional car.
If you are forced to go out on the road in a snowstorm, prepare and heed the following advice:
- Plan ahead and leave early. Assume any trips will take significantly longer than normal. When possible, take a route that avoids steep grades and lightly traveled roads.
- Slow down. Slick pavement means reduced traction and loss of control on snow or ice. Under these conditions, there’s no way the posted speed limit is safe. When snow or ice is on the ground, drop to a safe speed limit. Leave extra distance between your vehicle and the car in front of you. DO NOT use cruise control on icy roads. Use extra caution when driving on one-lane roads.
- Do not rush to pick up a radio or prearranged passenger. Offer ETAs you can realistically keep.
- To remove condensation and frost from the interior of windows, use your air-conditioner and select the fresh air option. Many cars automatically do this when you choose “defrost”.
- Check your visibility. Add de-icer to your windshield wiper fluid and make sure your wipers are free of ice. Consider updating to new flexible wipers. Make sure all mirrors are clear and properly adjusted for visibility.
- Clear snow and ice from any sensors or cameras used for backing up or avoiding accidents.
- Check your lights. Headlights are not just used to see, but also to be seen. Clear headlights and taillights of snow. If your lenses are sand-pitted, get new ones and cover them with the type of clear tape used on helicopter rotor blades and racecar wings, to protect them moving forward.
- Watch out for “black ice.” If the road looks slick, it probably is. Black ice is nearly transparent, and often looks like a harmless puddle, but it’s a thin sheet of ice that can be very dangerous. Test your traction with a smooth brake application or slight turn of the wheel.
- Remember the tough spots and try to avoid where icy roads tend to occur – like bridges, intersections and where water runs across the road.
- Don’t over-steer. If front tires start to lose grip as you are making a turn, the common – but incorrect – reaction is to continue turning the steering wheel. That won’t improve the situation and may make things worse. If the icy conditions end and the front tires regain grip, your car will dart wherever the wheels are pointed, which could be into oncoming traffic or a telephone pole.
If your rear wheels skid…
- Take your foot off the accelerator.
- Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right.
- If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control.
- If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
- If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure. You will feel the brakes pulse. This is normal.
If your front wheels skid…
- Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral, but don’t try to steer immediately.
- As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put the transmission in “drive” or release the clutch and accelerate gently.
“Winterize” your vehicle before the snow starts flying. Many motorists find themselves stuck or stranded each winter because of car trouble that could have been avoided by simple preventive maintenance. The following items should be addressed before the first snow hits and service stations are jammed:
- Battery charge and condition
- Change to winter-use oil
- Spark plugs, engine timing
- Defroster and heater
- Headlights, taillights and turn signals
- Brake condition and adjustment
- Tire tread (if you switch to winter tires, replace all four)
- Replace wiper blades and make sure your washer system functions properly
- Keep the inside of your windows clean
- Apply a water-shedding material (like Rain-X) to the outside of all windows, including mirrors
- Make sure the radiator coolant, hoses and thermostat are in tip-top shape
In case of emergencies, keep a “survival kit’ in your vehicle. Include the following:
- Several warm blankets
- Small foldable shovel and 2×4 planks to put under tires
- Sand and/or kitty litter in the trunk – for rear-wheel drive vehicles
- Safety flares and reflective triangles
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Jumper cables
- A red flag or cloth
- Warm socks, extra pairs of gloves/mittens, warm hat, extra sweaters or shirts
- Spare ice scraper and snowbrush
- Fully charged portable charger and/or cell phone battery
- Several chocolate, granola or high-energy food bars
- Wooden matches in a waterproof container
- Compass, scissors, rope, and a first aid kit
Technology can’t always save you from bad winter weather. New safety technologies can be helpful, but they are often no match for Mother Nature, if the roads are icy.
“Drivers today sometimes have a false sense of security with vehicle safety systems,” says Dean Fisher, COO of CARSTAR. “What some may not realize is if those sensors are covered in ice and snow, they may not perform optimally, putting the driver in danger. The key to winter driving is proper preparation, some preventative driving measures and an eye on the weather report.”
Use caution in the days after a Snowstorm, even when you are outside your vehicle and assisting passengers. You not only need to use caution on slippery sidewalks, but also be on the alert for ice melting and falling from high rise buildings.
If children/teenagers throw snowballs at your car as a prank, DO NOT stop to respond. The situation could escalate into a more serious incident.
Stay safe, stay warm, stay well this winter.