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How to Drive in the Snow

The winter months often signal the arrival of two things: holiday travel and snowy roads. Regardless of where you live, you may find yourself navigating winter weather and icy conditions as you visit family and friends during the season.

For some, winter driving feels stressful or even frightening. Keep yourself and your loved ones safe by following these tips on how to drive in the snow.

Clear Snow and Ice Off Your Vehicle

If your car is parked outside overnight, ice and snow will likely build up on your hood, windshield, rear window, and the top of your car. It’s critical that you clear this buildup off before beginning to drive, for the safety of everyone in your car as well as everyone else on the road.

To clear your windshield and other windows, turn on your defroster and let it melt the ice a bit. It can take a long time for your defroster to remove all the snow and ice completely, so it’s a good idea to have an ice scraper handy to speed the process along.

Additionally, you should brush all the snow off the hood and roof of your car. This may not seem very important, since this snow generally doesn’t impact your visibility. However, as you drive, the wind may blow the snow up onto your windshield, or onto the windshields of cars behind you. Many ice scrapers have a brush on the other end that you can use to clear loose snow off of your car.

Finally, check your headlights and taillights and make sure they are not covered in snow or ice. When visibility is low, it’s crucial that other drivers can see your lights.

Check Your Wipers and Washer Fluid

If you find yourself driving in a snowstorm, it’s important to have working windshield wipers that completely wipe away snow and water. If your wipers are old or have been used a lot, their blades can wear down and stop working as well as they should.

Before winter starts, it’s a good idea to check your wipers and consider replacing them. You will be able to tell they need replacing if the rubber is cracked or 

damaged, or if they leave streaks on your windshield when you use them. If you have a wiper on your back window, check it as well.

Another key feature for safe winter driving is a full supply of washer fluid. Slushy road conditions often leave a layer of dirt and salt on your car, including on your windshield. If you run out of wiper fluid (or if it freezes), you’ll have a much harder time cleaning it off and your ability to see may be impacted.

Check your wiper fluid to make sure it is made for the weather you’ll be traveling in. The bottle will typically indicate the lowest temperature the fluid is made for.

Check Your Tire Pressure and Tread

You should be checking your tires all year long and ensuring they are maintained and rotated as needed. This is especially important before you drive on icy roads. Tires with worn down tread are more likely to skid on ice or snow. Tires that are low on air can also lose traction more easily than properly inflated tires.

As temperatures get lower, your tire pressure may also decrease. Typically, you can find the ideal tire pressure for your tires on the sticker inside your driver side door. If the information isn’t there, check your owner’s manual.

Invest in Snow Tires

If your area regularly receives snow in the winter time, or you often find yourself driving on snowy roads in the winter, you should consider purchasing snow tires or winter tires. Some states even have traction laws requiring certain types of vehicles to have snow chains or snow tires for a few months out of the year.

Winter tires are made for driving in cold weather and light snow. They have a deeper tread than all season tires, allowing them to grip the road more effectively.

Snow tires are designed for driving in heavy snow. They have an even deeper tread than winter tires, and some have metal studs for additional traction.

Use Four-Wheel Drive

If your car is equipped with four-wheel drive, make sure it is engaged when driving in snowy conditions. All-wheel drive also works well on snowy and icy roads.

If your car is front-wheel drive only, you may still be able to drive in the snow, depending on the state of your tires and the road conditions. You will likely want good snow tires, and avoid attempting to drive in very deep snow.

Rear-wheel drive does not perform well in the snow. If you only have a rear-wheel drive vehicle, consider staying home or using a different car when roads are very snowy.

Keep in mind that having four-wheel drive does not absolve you of driving safely in winter weather. Four-wheel drive does not improve the function of your tires or brakes, which means it is still perfectly possible to lose control of your vehicle when turning or stopping on snow-covered roads.

Use Your Headlights

When snow or sleet is falling, it can decrease visibility, making it harder for other drivers to see you. Use your headlights in a winter storm, even during the day. Resist the urge to turn on your high beams, however. They will reflect off of the falling snow and make it harder for you to see.

Slow Down

One of the most important ways to drive safely in the snow is to slow down. This is for several reasons.

When roads are slick, your required stopping distance will be greater than usual. In fact, it can take up to 10 times longer to stop snow-covered roads than on dry roads. By driving slowly, you both decrease your stopping distance and give yourself more time to react to unexpected hazards.

Turning can also be tricky in the snow. If you slow down, you lessen the chances that you will lose control during a turn. If you do start to slide, your slower speed will give you more time to regain control before hitting something.

Avoid cruise control in winter weather conditions. You should be constantly assessing and adjusting your speed for the conditions. If you begin to skid while using cruise control, your car may accelerate to try and achieve the target speed, possibly causing you to lose control.

Stay Alert

Winter driving conditions create a number of hazards that you need to be aware of as you drive. Other drivers may lose control of their vehicles and enter your lane. Black ice may be present on the roadway. Wildlife, such as deer and elk, are especially common in rural areas.

It is always critical to avoid becoming distracted while driving, but especially so in the winter. Because it will take you longer to stop when a hazard appears on the road, you need as much time as possible to decelerate. If you are distracted by passengers, scenery, or a cell phone, you may not see the hazard until it is too late.

Give a Safe Following Distance

Do not tailgate other cars in winter weather conditions. Snowy roads make an already dangerous practice even more risky. On dry roads, you should generally allow three seconds of following distance. On wet or snowy roads, increase the distance to 6-8 seconds. This means that after the car in front of you passes a landmark, it should take at least 6 seconds before you pass the same landmark.

Don’t Panic

If you feel your car start to slide, the most important thing you can do is remain calm. If you panic, you may forget what to do and act on instinct.

If you skid, take your foot off the gas pedal, but do not slam on the brakes. Gently turn your steering wheel in the same direction that the rear of your car is sliding. If you feel your rear tires slide to the left, turn your steering wheel to the left. Do not make any quick maneuvers– jerking the steering wheel or slamming down on the brake pedal can cause you to lose control even further.

Keep an Emergency Kit in Your Car

If you do happen to crash into a snowdrift or break down on a highway, it may take some time for tow services, like AAA, to reach you. You can take steps to get your car unstuck by having the right tools in your car.

Snow Shovel

If you have room, a small snow shovel will allow you to dig out the snow around your tires. Even if you’re calling a tow truck, they’ll have an easier time getting you out if the path is clear.

Cat Litter or Sand

Sandbox sand and kitty litter can help provide traction to your tires when you’re stuck in the snow. Sprinkle the sand or cat litter around your tires and you may find yourself able to drive out of your sticky situation.

Heavy Coat, Gloves, and a Blanket

Whether you try to get your car out yourself or decide to wait for help, it won’t be much fun if you’re freezing. Some heating systems don’t work as well when the car is not in motion, so you may find the inside of your car getting chilly even with the heat on. Always have warm clothes and a blanket handy in case of emergency.