Winter Driving For Dummies (And You)

It has snowed maybe two times and I’ve already seen some of the most idiotic driving. Coming from New York City, I’m used to a fair amount of snow and stupid driving, but what I’ve been encountering has happened in maybe an inch of snow. So, this post is an open letter of do’s and don’ts during winter driving.

Now mind you, I’m not a great driver, so nothing in this post should be taken as that. In fact, I drive a Toyota Sienna, which puts me on the side of fairly conservative drivers. My history of car driving has consisted of a Camry, an Accord, a Jeep Cherokee, a converted Ford van (which I damaged), and a 1971 Mercedes Benz I lovingly called “Ugly”.  But I am a driver that is often scared by the stupidity of other drivers, so I take precautions that I’m pretty sure other folk don’t take.

So if you drive in the snow, read this as a refresher. Maybe you’re not one of the idiots I’m referring to, that’s okay. But you don’t have to admit it if you are:

Don’t drive if you don’t have to. Honestly, do you really need to go out? Is it something that can wait a day? Can you take public transportation?

Be prepared. Your trunk should house jumper cables, blankets, kitty litter or sand, a small shovel, a window scraper with a brush and a flashlight. Your pocket should sport some cash and a cell phone. Your coat (ladies) should be heavy enough that you’re not shivering. Layers are great. So are warm boots. Carry extra shoes if you have to. Don’t forsake gloves.

Know your car. What kind of car is it? How old are your tires? (For snow, newer is better) Four wheel drive or two-wheel drive? Have you used the Low Gear shift yet? (Do) When was your last oil change? What type of windshield wiper fluid are you using?

Use defrosters. Yes, both front and rear. Trying to view the road through a small 4×4 square that you scraped with your credit card is not going to help you when Trucker Dude flies at you from an angle. If it takes time for your car to warm up to defrost, then leave seven minutes earlier. Honestly, seven minutes to save a life.

Turn on the air conditioner. WHAT?!? Baby, it’s cold outside! What you don’t want is your hot breath turning to condensation on your cold windshield thus resulting in foggy glass. The solution is to (1) flip your heat all the way to the red zone and then (2) turn on your air conditioner to reduce the humidity in your car cabin.

Lower the volume. The noise of the heat is pretty loud. The engine is also working harder with the A/C. And you’re bundled up. Wouldn’t you rather hear the driver that has lost control of everything but his blaring horn?

Use your lights. I do not care if your car doesn’t have day lights: use your regular lights. This way you can warn pedestrians and other drivers when you are careening in their direction.

Slow freaking down. Listen, people, that sign that shows the speed limit is revealing the upper echelon of speed you should be traveling during normal driving conditions; it says nothing about bad traffic or inclement weather. If the speed limit is 45, drop to 30. Even 25. Stopping in snow will take longer and you might get to wherever you’re going late. But better late than dead.

Plan your stops. I’ve seen way to many people drive up to a stop sign or a traffic light as if there’s not a coating of semi-frozen water on the ground. Since it will take you longer to stop, tell yourself “I will start stopping earlier” as you approach the stop sign and then follow through.

Believe in Anti-Lock brakes (ABS). In my old Benz, I had to pump the brakes whenever I was on a low friction surface—it was necessary and it was taught. But with anti-lock brakes being put in most cars, people really haven’t let go of those old lessons. Here’s the fact: anti-locks pump your brakes. They do what you used to do but only one hundred times better than you ever could. It takes you longer to stop—but it’s a good thing. Your tires aren’t going to lock up and send you spinning. For those of you who have wondered: when you fully press the brake pedal, you will feel this strange rumbling rhythm under your foot—that is your anti-lock brakes working. Let them. Don’t take your foot off the brake. Let. Them. Work.

Don’t slam the brakes on ice. One year, while driving down a hill at night, I suddenly realized that the entire road was covered in a sheet of ice. I let go of my brakes and gas pedal, and switched to neutral. The dude coming toward me, and the guy right behind me, also realized they were on glass-like ice but they slammed on the brakes. I distinctly remember coasting by as those two vehicles slammed into each other in my rearview.

Taking a spin. You’ve probably had it start happening to you: you brake, or hit the gas, and your car starts to spin. The natural reaction is to get away from the spin and straighten the car, but that just forces physics to prove itself your master. The rule to remember when spinning out is this 1) Get out of the spin. To do that, with a front-wheel-drive vehicle, depending on the speed either a) let go of the gas and, turn against the spin and let your wheels regain traction (which works on a very low speed) or b) turn into the spin thus allowing your wheels to work with the ground and propel you through the slippery spot (which works on a slightly higher speed).

Plan your Go. Just because there’s snow in the ground, doesn’t mean you have to take the first available gap in the oncoming traffic. Doing that forces you to hit the gas to get across which will inevitably result in a skidding out, instead of jumping into the flow of traffic. Better to wait for a nice space, and gently press the gas to cross into traffic.

Leave space. The car in front of you shouldn’t be going any faster and the persons behind you shouldn’t either. So slow down, and give yourself some stopping distance.

Four-Wheel What? Just because you have four wheel drive doesn’t mean you are immune to the laws of physics. You have some benefits, surely, but a four-wheeler can spin out like the rest of them. I remember one year, during a surprise snow storm in North Carolina, driving past a four wheel drive jeep in an out-of-control slow spin with the driver behind the wheel with this comical frozen expression of horror.

Do you have any tips you’ve found handy and want to add to the list?