Essential Winter Driving Skills You Need to Know

The pains of winter driving — the wheelspin, the snow-induced oversteer and the eye-searing whiteout conditions that make you lose sight of just about everything.


Winter’s that time of year when dead Christmas trees tend to litter the neighborhood landscape, you don’t see your neighbors for weeks on end and countless pounds are added to the collective American waistline. But don’t forget the pains of winter driving — the wheelspin, the snow-induced over-steer and the eye-searing whiteout conditions that make you lose sight of just about everything. Though you can’t avoid it all, you can certainly learn some basic skills that should help you stay shiny side up and clear of the local towing company.

Keep it Clean

Remember seeing the mattress of snow fly off the minivan in front of you on the expressway? Don’t be that guy. Before you even hit the road, make sure you clean off your car — all of it. Don’t use the excuse that your SUV is too tall. Get a long brush and a step ladder. It’s unsafe for the drivers around you, and a big pile of snow can raise your car’s center of gravity, making it harder to control. Ensure your headlights, taillights and turn signals are all visible. Clean off your wipers (or leave them in the extended position, off the windshield, the night before if you know the white stuff is gonna hit). Make sure you have at least a half tank of gas (full is preferable) and your fluids are topped off.

Pack Smart

Keep an emergency road kit in your car. Okay, so you don’t want it to look like a pack mule, but make sure you have at least the following: properly inflated spare, jack, tire iron, tire inflator (like Fix-a-Flat), flashlight, jumper cables, road hazard reflectors/flares, two quarts of oil, a gallon of anti-freeze (pre-diluted), subzero windshield washer fluid, extra fuses, emergency blanket, rock salt/cat litter/sand (for traction should you get stuck), telescoping snow shovel, spare boots/clothes (in case you get wet), non-perishable food supply and a two-way radio. A little bit of preparation goes a long way. In a bind, your smartphone might save you, but then again, it might not.

Wear The Right Shoes

Tires make all the difference in the world when it comes to winter driving. If you live in a place where you know you’ll get ice and snow, plan for it; be prepared to spend some money for your safety (and sanity). All-season tires may be okay for everyday driving, but when it gets bad out there, snow tires and even dedicated ice/snow tires are the order of the day. These tires are usually made of a softer compound, which increases traction. They bite harder in the snow and ice and are heaven sent for those who have rear-wheel-drive cars. Sure, it’s more money, but since you’ll only put them on your car for a few months out of the year, they should last. And get yourself a set of cheap steel wheels for the snow tires. You’ll save money on tire mounting and balancing every year.

Give Me Some Space

Recognize that stopping distances in snow and ice can double and even triple in many cases. Don’t go trying to set any commuting records. Slow it down, give more than ample distance between you and the car in front of you and make sure your own brake lights work. Since you can’t guarantee that the guy in front of you changed his bulbs, look for the back of the car to lift if his brake lights don’t work.

It’s also likely that your car has anti-lock brakes (ABS), so know how to use them. Always apply firm pressure, and don’t freak out when you feel the pedal vibration (those are the brakes pulsing). Remember to continue to use the steering wheel as you brake, and if you’re headed for a crash, hit the brake as hard as you can and steer to your escape route. Also, don’t keep your eyes glued to the car in front of you: drive with your head up. This means look several cars ahead when you drive so you know what’s going on well in advance.

Use the Brains Above Your Neck

Half of winter driving is using your noggin. Leave early, decrease your speeds and increase your level of patience. If you hear reports of black ice on your commute route, consider working from home or taking the flippin’ train for once. Also, if you know that smaller streets tend not to get plowed right away, avoid them. Taking a parking spot that is deluged with snow also isn’t smart. You might be able to get in, but that doesn’t mean you can also get out. Plus, give yourself space between your car and the car parked in front of you in case you need to finagle your way out of deeper snow.

When All Else Fails

Alright, genius. You’re stuck. Now what? Think a little before you stomp on the gas and send snow flying everywhere without your actually moving. First, get as much snow out of your car’s path of travel as you can. If you’ve got traction control, now is a good time to deactivate it since you don’t want to lose power when the wheels start to slip (read your manual if you have no idea how to do this). Keep the wheels as straight as possible and modulate the throttle. Move forward a little, then let off the gas and repeat — creating a rocking motion until you’ve got slow but continuous forward motion. Then apply a little more throttle. If that doesn’t work, use the rock salt/cat litter/sand you keep in your truck for emergencies such as these. Just make sure you put it in front of the wheels that are powered. You can even use your carpeted floor mats for traction. Wedge them under the front of the powered wheels, carpeted side up.

If you’re well-prepared, well-stocked and you think calmly under pressure, you can stay out of most winter driving troubles. Okay, so you can’t control the guy who thinks his all-wheel-drive hatchback makes him a rally driver, but you can make awareness and some basic skills your best friends during these colder months. And just remember, being in a rush doesn’t help anybody when the streets are slick and the temps are dropping.

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