Driving in the Snow: 13 Tips for Staying Safe

Get Home Safely With These Winter Driving Safety Tips

Driving on snow and ice-covered roads can be challenging – even for the most experienced drivers in the best-prepared vehicles. Both ice and snow reduce the amount of traction you have, making it harder to get moving, steer, and stop. 

The winter months also bring fewer daylight hours and foggy weather, often making visibility as challenging as maintaining traction. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there were 456,000 crashes during the 2017 winter season. They resulted in 159,000 injuries and 2,099 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 17% of all vehicle crashes occur during winter driving conditions. 

With a properly equipped car, advice from AFA-Motor, some practice, and the right attitude, however, you can confidently get to your destination safely. Here are 13 winter driving tips to help you conquer the winter roads.

1) Prepare Your Car

Our list of winter driving tips starts well before you hit the road. Before the snow starts flying, you want to prepare your car for the season by making sure it can handle challenging winter-driving conditions. Whether you do it yourself or take it to a mechanic, it’s a critical task. 

It starts with checking the condition of your tires, making sure they have ample tread to handle snow and are filled to the proper tire pressure. The sides of snowy roads tend to be littered with cars that never should have left their driveways due to worn tires. As the weather gets cold, the amount of pressure in your tires goes down. Checking their inflation and filling them to the pressure indicated in your owner's manual or the information placard near the driver’s door is essential. 

It's always a good idea to keep your gas tank at least half full. It's even more important to have plenty of fuel during the winter, when there's a higher chance you'll get stuck in traffic. Running out of gas in a rural area can be a major headache – and in a worst-case scenario, a fatal mistake.

Many people take their emergency supplies out of their cars during the summer. Before winter comes, make sure your tire chains, emergency kit, and ice scraper are back in your vehicle. If your tire chains are brand new, it's a great idea to unpack them and practice installing them when the weather is good. Not only will you learn the tricks of how to install them, but you'll also ensure they fit your tires and aren't missing any essential parts.

2) Plan Your Drive

Safe winter driving starts before you leave your home or office. First, you have to consider whether the trip is important enough to risk your personal safety, the safety of others on the road, and the safety of your vehicle. 

Is that Starbucks run worth risking injury to yourself or damage to your car? Remember: Even if you have years of winter driving experience – and have a vehicle well-equipped enough for a trip to the North Pole – other drivers may not have the knowledge or proper equipment to avoid a collision.

If you do have to go out, you'll want to plan a route that avoids steep hills and congested areas. You want a path that puts you on streets that are plowed, de-iced, or sanded. You'll want to have your phone charged or have a charger in the car. Finally, it’s a good idea to let someone know your plans and when you expect to be home, especially if you live in a rural area. 

Once you get behind the wheel, it’s time to put your phone away. When driving on a snow-covered road, you need to exercise 100% concentration on your driving. You don’t even want to use your phone's hands-free calling feature to have a conversation that can distract you while operating your vehicle.

3) Be Prepared and Bring an Emergency Kit

Even short drives in bad weather can end up lasting hours, so it's a good idea to prepare both yourself and your car for a lengthier trip than expected. That means having plenty of fuel in your gas tank and an emergency kit in case you’re stuck in the car. 

A good emergency kit includes non-perishable high-protein snacks, water, warm gloves, a first aid kit, work gloves, a blanket, a shovel, jumper cables, and an emergency light or road flares. If you travel with a pet, make sure your kit has food and a bowl for them.

Throwing a big piece of cardboard into your trunk or the back of your SUV can give you a dry spot to kneel on if you have to install tire chains. Your knees will thank you.

4) Consider Winter Tires

Not everybody needs snow tires. However, if you live in areas where snow, ice, or freezing temperatures are common, they can be a life-saving investment. More appropriately called “winter tires,” they're designed to help you maintain traction when other tires might cause your car to go slip-sliding away.

Tire experts will tell you that the all-season tires that come on most cars will work in mild winter conditions when they’re relatively new. However, these tires won’t help much when the going gets tough, or if the tires are worn. They simply make too many compromises for the sake of versatility to work exceptionally well in any season.  

Quality winter tires have tread designs and rubber compounds that are engineered to maximize grip in cold, snowy, or icy conditions. Because they use rubber formulations that stay flexible in cold weather, they can help you grip the road even when the weather is dry. Winter tires typically incorporate tread designs with many crisp, biting edges to help create and maintain traction.

Of course, winter tires aren't magic. While they can expand the range of conditions where you can maintain traction, they can't overcome the laws of physics if you exceed their capabilities.

5) Slow and Steady Wins This Race

Remember how carefully you drove when you took your driver’s license test? You’ll want to drive even more modestly and smoothly to succeed at winter driving. You need to accelerate and brake as if you have fragile eggs under the pedals that you’ll break if you push too hard or fast. 

In addition, exceeding your tires’ ability to maintain grip can result in a skid, spin, or collision. That means anticipating stops, corners, and hills well ahead of time and adjusting your momentum early. You’ll want to plan slow, wide turns, as whipping the steering wheel will do nothing more than turn your front wheels into snowboards. 

As much as possible, you only want to ask the tires to do one thing at a time. That means you want to brake and accelerate in a straight line, and only steer if you’re not braking or accelerating. Imagine having a string tied from the brake pedal to the bottom of the steering wheel. If you’re braking, you don’t want to be doing much steering. If you’re turning, you don’t want to be braking. 

Never use cruise control or semi-autonomous driving systems in winter driving conditions. Not only will snowstorms block the sensors and road markers the systems use to operate, but drivers need to stay fully engaged behind the wheel.

6) Brake Early, Not Often

When driving on snow or ice, you want to leave much more space between you and the car ahead than you do when the road is dry. Where you might want three car lengths between you and the vehicle in front of you during dry conditions, you'll need six to 10 lengths when the highway is slick.

The goal is to have space so you can brake early and smoothly to maintain car control. Jabbing the brakes in slick conditions is an easy way to put the car in an uncontrollable skid. Consider replacing your brakes, please click here to browse

Before the era of anti-lock brakes (ABS), drivers were encouraged to pump the brakes to avoid locking them up and putting their cars into skids. All new vehicles and most used cars on the road today are equipped with ABS. The system does the pulsing for you at each wheel, and does it faster than any human driver can. On newer cars, the ABS works with the vehicle’s stability control system to keep the vehicle traveling in the direction you want it to go.

When driving a car with anti-lock brakes, the most effective way to stop is to apply steady force to the brake pedal and let the system do the work of preventing wheel lock-up.

7) Momentum is Your Best Friend – and Worst Enemy

When climbing slippery hills or powering through deep snow, maintaining momentum is key to getting through. If you stop or pause, you may not be able to get going again. You don’t necessarily want speed, just enough momentum to maintain steady forward motion. 

Snowy or icy conditions don’t mean you can ignore traffic signals. Instead, you want to approach signals slowly enough so you can time your arrival at the intersection with the green light and keep moving forward. You need to be in full control of your car in case traffic coming from the sides is not able to stop as they approach the light.   

On the flip side, that same momentum can get you in trouble when it’s time to stop. You don’t want to have so much speed that you cannot come to a controlled stop if you need to.

8) Don’t Rely on All-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are great tools to get you moving when the roads are snowy or icy. They are, however, not magic technologies that will keep you from getting in an accident. While they help you maintain traction as you accelerate, they don’t help you brake any faster.

In fact, vehicles with all- or four-wheel drive tend to be heavier than front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicles, and can carry more momentum as a result. All-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs tend to have higher centers of gravity than cars, making them more prone to rolling. 

It's been said that careless use of four-wheel drive will just get you into deeper snow before you are stuck.

That said, a four- or all-wheel-drive vehicle driven responsibly will perform better in winter driving conditions than a vehicle with two-wheel drive. Some modern all-wheel-drive systems use active torque vectoring. This is a fancy way of saying that the all-wheel-drive system will help you corner by shifting torque to the wheels on the outside of a corner.

9) Clear Your Vision

Before you drive a snow-covered car, it is imperative that you clear snow and ice from the windows and roof. Driving a vehicle with snow or ice-covered windows is not only dangerous, but it's also illegal in many places. It only takes a couple of minutes, and it can save you from an accident.

Snow from a car's roof can slide down over the windshield when you stop or blow onto the windshields of other vehicles as you travel down the road. It's also essential to clear your headlights and taillights so that you can both see and be seen. If your car has a rearview camera, a quick wipe of the lens will allow you to safely back up.

Keep a good ice scraper and snow brush in the car, so you won't have to rely on using a credit card as a scraper to get the windows clear. Whatever you do, don’t pour hot water on a window to clear ice or snow. You might not shatter the glass, but any chips or cracks can quickly expand due to the rapid temperature change. 

The worse the weather gets, there’s more to block your visibility. In addition to snow and ice, de-icing chemicals, and salty road spray need to be cleared from your windshield. Filling your windshield washer reservoir with a winter mix of cleaner is easy, as is changing wiper blades or inserts. If you haven’t refilled your windshield washer fluid reservoir since summer, it’s a good idea to empty it out and replace it with a freeze-resistant mixture.

10) Check the Tailpipe

Before you start your car on a snowy day, it is vital to make sure your car’s tailpipe – or tailpipes – are clear of snow, ice, or other debris. If the exhaust is clogged, deadly carbon monoxide gas can seep into the car’s cabin. 

The colorless and odorless gas can be fatal to those breathing it in an enclosed space. 

No matter the temperature outside, if you’re stuck in the snow, it is critical that you keep a window slightly cracked while you wait for help. It’s easy to damage your exhaust system as you drive over icy berms and expose exhaust components to road salt. Even if your tailpipe is clear, a damaged exhaust system can feed carbon monoxide into your car’s cabin. 

If you notice any strange exhaust noises or notice exhaust coming out from the sides of the car, have the system checked for leaks or damage.

11) Check the Grip

Navigating winter road conditions takes practice. If you can do so safely, it’s a good idea to find an empty parking lot that’s free of curbs and light poles to practice winter driving techniques. 

We're not talking about doing donuts in the school parking lot; we're talking about learning your car’s traction limits, and practicing what to do if you start to skid. We’ve all been told in driver’s ed to steer into the direction of a skid, but without practice, these skills won't come naturally when you need them.

Road conditions and the amount of traction you have can change quickly. If you don’t know how much grip you have, let up on the accelerator and let your car slow gradually. When you get to a place with little traffic and no ditches on the side of the road, gently apply your brakes to see how much grip you have. If you immediately feel the car start to skid, it’s time to adjust your driving for the more slippery conditions and, perhaps, turn around to head home. Not all winter weather conditions are the same. Packed snow, for example, provides much more traction than a thin glaze of freezing rain.  

12) Technology Is Your Winter Friend

Newer vehicles are loaded with winter-friendly technology to help keep you out of trouble and summon help if you need it. Every new car comes standard with anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control to help you stop and keep you moving in the direction you want to go. 

Many new cars come with a snow mode for the transmission that selects the proper gear to get you moving without spinning the tires. Some vehicles have winter modes that not only control the transmission, but also manage the traction control, braking, all-wheel drive, and throttle to assist in getting and maintaining grip.

Hill descent control, which is common on all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles, is designed to manage the brake at each wheel to slowly guide you down hills without a loss of control. Hill ascent assist, which is less common, applies power to each wheel to help you climb grades without losing traction or control. The 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2020 Toyota 4Runner are examples of SUVs with available hill ascent assist. 

Many newer vehicles come with telematics systems, such as Chevrolet’s OnStar, that will automatically summon help and provide the location of a collision to first responders. It’s important to note, however, that most systems are limited to places with cell phone reception.

13) Jackets and Child Safety Seats

With winter comes heavy coats for everyone in the family. Putting a child in a child safety seat while they’re wearing a puffy winter jacket is dangerous, however. Instead, you want to take the jacket off the child before placing them in the car seat. 

A thick coat can make the seat’s harness too loose to safely protect a child and can allow them to slide out of the seat during a collision. 

Safety advocates say a better idea is to put kids in their seats while they’re wearing nothing thicker than a sweatshirt. You can then use their jackets as blankets or get blankets specifically designed for your child safety seats.


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