This is the second part of a 3-part series on winter driving tips that are often not mentioned or discussed in enough depth.
9. In an emergency, minimize the time spent out of your vehicle. One of the biggest tragedies is people getting injured, killed, disoriented, or lost when they step out of their vehicles during winter emergencies. In huge multicar pileups recently in the US on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, numerous people got out to help other motorists, inspect damage, or take pictures; at least one person was struck and killed by another vehicle. And an Illinois groom died on his wedding night when he stopped to help a woman who’d slid off a snowy road. Both he and the woman were killed when they were struck by not one but three cars whose drivers simply did not see them.
State patrol advise that if you’re stranded or see someone in trouble, it’s best to stay in your vehicle and call for help. Frequently at collision or emergency scenes, motorists experience what’s known as “target fixation”; by staring at people or disabled vehicles too long, such drivers may unwittingly head right for them. After all, you tend to steer in the direction you’re looking. And in the case of blinding snowstorms, people walking to seek help can become quickly disoriented and frostbitten. Always stay in your car for your safety and so that emergency personnel can locate you easier.
10. Turn on your flashers to warn others of sudden slowdowns. Briefly turning on your emergency flashers to alert drivers behind you of a sudden slowdown or problem up ahead can help provide valuable warning time. This is actually a tactic used frequently in Europe but seldom seen in the United States. Every little bit helps, especially if motorists behind you are going too fast for conditions or visibility is poor.
11. Control your speed. It is almost always mentioned in winter driving tips to reduce your speeds in snowy and icy conditions. But this excellent advice goes deeper than that. You can actually travel quite fast safely in a straight line on ice and snow and be fine—as long as you don’t have to stop or turn. It’s awfully hard to beat physics, and American motorists are especially poor at driving appropriately for conditions (a 40-car pileup in Wisconsin started precisely because motorists were going too fast). In bad weather, always go more slowly than you think is necessary, maintain the maximum distance between you and other vehicles, and keep your eyes up as far ahead as possible to anticipate hazards.
12. Don’t travel at night. It can be very dangerous to travel in darkness in bad winter weather. You can’t see ice or changing road surfaces as well; falling snow can be disorienting blowing into headlights; lane markings or even where the edges of the road lie can be impossible to discern without other visual cues. And while dense fog and blowing snow can extremely treacherous during the day, they’re even more so at night. We are also biologically programmed to become more fatigued as darkness falls, further hindering our judgment. In these cases, better to be safe than sorry—and wait until daylight.
13. Coping with extreme temperatures. Single-digit and below-zero temps call for special tactics:
- Use windshield washer fluid rated for temperatures of –30; this will help keep the fluid from freezing in your reservoir tank, in the wiper nozzles, and on your windshield. Prestone makes a good formula that’s a combination de-icer, washer, and dirt repellant.
- When filling up your vehicle, don’t leave the gas pump unattended to run inside the convenience station; below-zero temps can cause the automatic shut-off pumps to jam—and gasoline spurting out all over the place.
- Always keep gloves and extra clothing in the car; a sleeping bag rated for negative temps that can be stored compactly in a compression sack is also a good idea in case you get stranded.
- Keep your gas tank at least half-full at all times to avoid condensation issues. It also provides fuel in case you get stuck and need to keep the heater going.
- Check your tire air pressure frequently. The colder the temperature, the faster they tend to go down.
- If you live in an area that regularly gets below zero and don’t have sheltered parking, you might consider installing an engine block heater that can be plugged in at home or your workplace for easier starts.
- But note that today’s modern vehicles do not require significant idling to warm up—in fact, it can even harm them. A maximum of 30 seconds, even in the coldest temps, is all that’s needed.
14. Minimize braking and acceleration. Great driving is all about properly managing time, weight, and space. This is especially true in bad winter conditions:
- Don’t brake if you don’t have to. Slow down early enough to roll up to a traffic light change without having to brake completely. If you do need to stop or slow down, start braking early and gently to keep yourself and others behind you in control.
- If a traffic light does change quickly, make a swift judgment call whether it’s really safe to stop—remember that vehicles behind you may not be able to halt in time in these conditions, and it may just be safer for you to go on through the intersection.
- Keep your acceleration gentle and to a minimum—if you hit the gas too much on snow and ice, you’ll just spin your wheels and possibly go into a skid or a slide.
- Use your vehicle’s momentum and time your gear changes to minimize braking and acceleration. If you’re in hilly terrain, let gravity work for you on the downhill, but try not to stop on an uphill—you’ll lose momentum and start sliding backward.
- Give yourself as much space as possible between you and other vehicles. Remember, everything takes a lot longer to happen on slippery roads!
15. To pull off or not? And where? Sometimes a driver needs or wants to pull off because of an emergency, fatigue, nerves, lack of visibility, or changing conditions. But this is often a judgment call depending on the location, conditions, and level of traffic. If you’re traveling up a hill or in a place with narrow shoulders, or there’s a lot of traffic going by, it may be safer for you and others to just keep going rather than pull off—and risk a crash trying to get back on again. If you need to pull off a highway or interstate during a blinding snowstorm, try to find a ramp with an overpass under which you can park temporarily. The overpass will provide shelter and keep your car clearer of snow.
16. Use your thermometer. Many modern vehicles show the external temperature on the dashboard. Use this information to your advantage to tell if conditions are above or right around freezing, or if temps are dropping to the point that ice may be forming. Keep in mind that the temperature displayed may not truly reflect what’s happening on the ground, especially if the road surface has been salted or de-iced, is shaded or unprotected, or if traffic has been grinding ice and frost away. But this extra info can provide very handy clues as to whether driving conditions may be changing quickly.
If you want to read the last part of this 3-part series on less common winter driving tips, click here.