Like most Americans, I travel every Thanksgiving to see my family, but I do something crazy—I drive 4,000 miles from Seattle to Wisconsin and back—alone. This year was no exception. But on my return trip west in the first week of December, a major winter storm swept eastward across the country, plunging much of it in deep snow, heavy ice, sleet, freezing rain, and sub-zero temperatures.
I changed my route slightly to avoid the worst of Storm Cleon, but 300 miles of snowstorms and fog, 400 miles of heavy blowing snow, and another 500 miles of icy Interstate 90 as slick as a skating rink awaited me. The one night I stayed in South Dakota, temperatures dropped to –33°F (–36°C) with the wind chill. Insanely cold.
Predictably, I also passed a lot of vehicles (and emergency personnel trying to help them) that had spun out into ditches, off freeway ramps, and into center medians. A distressing number of these were large pickup trucks and SUVs pulling trailers. Considering that humans excel at underestimating risk and being overconfident, it doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out what happened.
At this time of the year, many traffic safety and automobile organizations put out winter driving tips. They recommend getting your vehicle in tip-top mechanical order; keeping emergency food, water, blankets in case you get stranded; and driving more slowly and not braking suddenly. This is all very sound advice, but many other aspects to safe winter driving are never mentioned. In this 3-part article, I’ll cover these, as well as expound on oft-told ones, but from a different perspective.
1. Be antisocial. One of the biggest problems in America is that drivers don’t leave sufficient following distances in any kind of weather. Even on largely empty interstate roads, motorists frequently bunch up and trail only a couple of seconds behind other vehicles at 75 mph (113 km/h). In the winter, tightly packed caravans of six or seven vehicles—semi tractor-trailers, cars, SUVs, campers—often form with scarcely a second’s worth of distance between them. All it takes is a single driver tapping their brakes or hitting an icy patch for a pileup to happen. Your best defense is be downright antisocial—distancing yourself from others as much as possible and always planning an escape route are your best insurance in case you or someone else starts suddenly sliding, braking, or going out of control.
2. Be hyperaware of road feel. To drive safely on snow and especially ice, one needs to be fully alert to how their vehicle feels on the road surface at any given moment. The slightest changes—a sudden floatiness in steering, a tiny sideways shift of a rear tire transmitted through seat vibrations to your butt, a minor rasping noise—often signal a changing condition that requires reducing speed or making another immediate adjustment. Don’t let distractions like talking to passengers or having music on too loud get in the way of this situational awareness.
3. Don’t get overconfident just because you have AWD and ABS. State patrol and emergency personnel always say that the first vehicles to go off the road are SUVs and pickups with all-wheel or four-wheel drive. In many years of driving in winter conditions, I’d have to concur. Having power to all four wheels may help you get traction in certain situations, but it will not help you stop, and it certainly won’t save you from stupid driving. Antilock brakes (ABS) can go a long way in helping you stop sooner and maintaining control, but again don’t rely on it. Use common sense.
4. What really to do in a skid. The best way to handle a skid is, of course, not to get into one in the first place through a combination of proper space management, minimal braking and steering, and no sudden moves. But if you do get into one, what should you do? There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) about the subject, and it gets complicated because it’s often highly contextual depending on what caused the skid in the first place, the type of vehicle, and its drive technology. And in a panic situation, everything usually flies out of the mind in a flash. The most important things to remember? Look into the empty space you want to go and steer gently into that direction. Don’t overdo the steering correction, avoid braking hard, and very lightly press the accelerator to redistribute the car’s weight to gain traction. It’s really that simple.
5. Don’t freak out. Driving in snow and ice means that your vehicle will not behave the same way it does on dry pavement. No matter how carefully you make a turn, the back end may slide out a little. Your vehicle will wallow when plowing through deeper snow or shimmy sideways in icy ruts. And you may experience considerable oversteer or understeer at times. You also may not stop as quickly as you think you’re going to. It’s important to remember that this is completely normal in winter conditions. Keeping calm, having your wits about you, anticipating these sensations, and gently correcting them as needed with very small inputs will go a long way to making you a safer, less stressed-out winter driver.
6. Practice deep breathing and relaxation methods. When we drive in hazardous situations, lots of nervous tension can build up, sometimes without our even realizing it. Often we start breathing in a shallow fashion, or worse yet we hold our breath and tighten our muscles. When this happens, our adrenalin surges and our brains are deprived of much-needed oxygen for thinking clearly. It’s important to recognize these signs of tension and deliberately relax, whether by deep breathing, mindfully exhaling, listening to soothing music, or even singing (see my earlier blog post for more on this).
7. Be aware of fatigue. Bad winter conditions take huge tolls on a driver’s attention and energy. On longer road trips, many drivers underestimate the exhaustion that can set in after hours of sustained focus and tension. This can cause a person to make mistakes or misjudge a potential situation. Take frequent breaks or stop early for the night if necessary.
8. Avoid a bad situation in the first place. The best way to avoid getting into a crash in bad winter weather is simply to not go out if possible, or take public transit. Even if you can drive well in snow and ice, it doesn’t mean others can. Increase your safety odds by staying home or waiting until the worst of the storm has passed and roads have been plowed. And if mountain passes require tire chains even for AWD or 4WD vehicles, seriously question whether it’s wise to be out at all in such conditions.
If you want to continue reading more winter driving tips, check out Part 2 of this series.