How to Stay Safe when Driving in the Snow

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How to Stay Safe when Driving in the Snow

Summer road trips are all well and good, but a winter storm shouldn't leave you stranded because you're wary of venturing out into the ice and snow. I've been driving for decades, and have plenty of experience navigating sleet and icy conditions, and today we're going to cover a few of my tips to help boost your confidence and ensure you're not stuck at home when the snow begins to fall.

Get yourself ready

Driving in the snow is no easy feat, and the first step is to ensure you're ready for the trip. If you're tired or distracted, take a nap or sort it out before you get into your car. You're not going to be able to outrun the storm anyway, so take the time to get yourself in the right frame of mind. Even a short nap will leave you refreshed, and better able to cope with the fatigue from the snow glare, and the stress of driving in the winter conditions. I also like a strong coffee to take with me in my thermos, the warmth from the drink keeps me awake, and the buzz also helps to give me greater focus. If you're not a big coffee drinker, another hot drink like a cocoa or a tea can serve the same purpose. If you're hungry grab some snacks, beef jerky is a go-to of mine, but nuts or fruit will also work well. Before you get out on the road put aside all thoughts of arriving on time. The conditions will determine how quick the trip will be, but in my experience it usually takes two or three times longer than normal. Call your friends or family who may be waiting for you and let them know when you're leaving, and that you may be "late." There's no point rushing to meet an arbitrary deadline and in doing so put your own safety at risk.

Get your car ready

This is somewhat easier than mentally preparing yourself, but there's a few things to check on before you venture out into a storm to ensure you're ready.
  • Oils and fluids. Check these are full, and if not top them up. You may need to replace your windshield wiper fluid with a formula that reduces cloudiness in cold conditions.
  • Tires. A good set of all-weather-tires is normally good enough if you're driving on paved roads, however if you're navigating dirt roads or steep mountain terrain ensure you fit your snow chains to your tires.
  • Gas. Ensure you've got more than enough fuel to reach your destination, your car running dry in a storm is a recipe for disaster.
  • Radio. Find a local radio station that is going to give updates on the weather and any location-specific information you may need to be aware of when you're on the road.
Now remember, just because you have a flash new four-wheel-drive, driving in the snow requires a specific set of skills. Your anti-lock brakes are designed to prevent further skidding, once you've already lost control - not to stop a skid in the first place. If you've been driving too fast, or have hit a patch of black ice you will skid, no matter what the car salesman has told you. There is no substitute for slowing down, and even if you're crawling along at a snail's pace your only goal should be to reach your destination in one piece.

Pack an emergency kit

Getting stranded in the snow is not ideal, but if you prepare a few supplies beforehand it can make a difference and help you get out alive. I'd throw in a few spare blankets, my flare gun, tow ropes, a flashlight, food and water, as well as a small snow shovel and an ice scraper to help you out in a pinch. I've also got a small camp-stove I never take out of my car, which has plenty of fuel to keep me warm, and a set of snow chains and some heavy duty-gloves in case I need to fit these once I'm on the road. A big pack of kitty litter is another must-have, if you get bogged you can put it under your driving wheels to help your car gain traction again.

Tips when you're on the road

  • Use UV protective sunglasses in the daytime. They help to stave off fatigue in your eyes, and will reduce the glare from the snow making it easier to concentrate on the road.
  • Do not look at oncoming headlights. You want to preserve your night vision as much as you can, so look down and to the right, keeping the oncoming cars in your peripheral vision but allowing you to still see the road.
  • Leave your high-beams off, and don't stare into the light created by your own lights.
  • If you can't identify any road markers, use anything you can to judge where your car should be on the road. Perhaps there's tire marks from an earlier car, or you may have a guard rail you can drive alongside.
  • When coming alongside another car, ease over to the side of the road gently, without suddenly braking (or accelerating), and let them pass by.
  • Keep plenty of distance between you and any cars in front. Having to suddenly hit the brakes is a recipe for disaster in the snow, so give yourself plenty of room to maneuver.
  • Whiteouts can happen fast, and if you begin to lose visibility slow right down and put your hazard lights on. You can also gently rest your foot on the brakes to make your brakes light up as well and increase the chances other cars will notice yours on the road. If you need to park, pull off the road completely into a driveway or a parking lot, simply pulling off to the side of the road is a major risk that another car will drive into you.
  • If cars begin collecting behind you, pull over and let them pass. There will always be people who want to speed and don't respect the laws of nature, so get out of their way so they can pass, before continuing your journey.
  • Try to avoid coming having to make a complete stop, unless there's a stop sign you need to obey. If there's a red light ahead, simply slow down until it goes green, hitting the brakes when driving in the snow is a very good way to send your car into a skid.
  • Use your engine to better control your speed, by dropping down to a lower gear than you would normally use. This is very easy in a manual car, but many with automatic transmissions allow you to gear down manually too.
Driving in the snow takes care, but with the right preparation and following a handful of rules when you're on the road will significant up your chances you'll make it safely to your destination. Listen to your local radio stations, and if they're telling you to stay off the roads completely, often its best to listen to their advice. Your safety should always be your first priority.