How to Drive in Snow Safely

When temperatures drop, driving dangers rise. This article gives you information and recommendations for reducing the roadway hazards brought by snow and ice.

5 Tips for driving in the snow

Smooth is the name of the game when driving in winter. Because snow and ice reduce the friction between the tires and the road, any sudden vehicle movements can cause you to lose control. Follow the advice below to safety navigate wintry conditions on the road.

1. Drive slowly

Lower your speed to give yourself time to react smoothly and gently to changing conditions. When you drive slower, less force will be required to stop or turn, so less traction is needed to keep the vehicle in control.

2. Accelerate and decelerate slowly

Newton’s first law of motion is that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless some other force acts on it. If you stomp on your brakes on an icy road, your vehicle will obey Newton’s law, potentially landing you in a ditch or worse. Remember to speed up and slow down gradually to gently harness the reduced traction of a slippery roadway and avoid spinning out or going into a skid.

3. Increase your following distance

Once again, this tip is about giving yourself enough time to react to changes slowly and smoothly. When roads are slick, you should leave two to three times as much distance between you and the next vehicle as you would under dry conditions. On the highway, this translates to six to ten seconds of space between you and whoever’s in front of you.

How to Drive in Snow Safely

4. Don’t stop if you can avoid it

One way to drive more smoothly is to avoid coming to a complete stop whenever circumstances allow. A car needs much more traction to get going from a dead stop than to accelerate while already rolling. If, for instance, you see a red light ahead, try to time your approach to the light so that you are still rolling when it turns green. Obviously this is only possible when the circumstances allow, and you should always stop completely if not doing so will put you or others in danger.

5. Pay Attention to the Stability Control System Warning Light

A stability control system uses sensors to detect even momentary skids that a driver might notice. These systems can adjust the power to the wheels, the anti-lock braking mechanisms, and other traction features to help keep the vehicle in control. If it detects a problem, the stability control warning light, which depicts a vehicle with squiggly lines representing the tire tracks, will blink on the dashboard. If this happens, you need to let up on the accelerator until the tires regain traction. Again, this deceleration should be done smoothly, as a sudden loss of power can exacerbate a skid.

How to Drive in Snow Safely

Know your drivetrain and tires

The way your vehicle’s drivetrain distributes power to the wheels is key to how it handles on slick surfaces. The four main types of drivetrain configurations are front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), all-wheel drive (AWD), and four-wheel drive (4WD). AWD and 4WD layouts are the best for winter conditions.

Each configuration behaves differently on slick roads, as detailed below.

  • FWD — This setup is most common in passenger cars and crossovers. It sends the engine’s power to the front wheels, which provides some advantages on icy roads: the front of a vehicle has more weight, so the tires with power to them are pressed more firmly onto the road and have more traction. This actually keeps the rear of the car more stable. If you live in an area with regular snow and have a vehicle with this layout, it is very important to have winter tires.
  • RWD — In this configuration, the power goes to back wheels. Trucks, large SUVs, and sports cars usually feature this design. It is not ideal for snow, as it can cause the vehicle to spin out or fishtail because it is lighter on the back end where power is. Snow tires are even more crucial for RWD vehicles than FWD ones in regions that see winter weather.
  • AWD — Here power is distributed to all wheels depending on the amount of traction each has (which is determined by sensors). Under normal conditions, most power goes to either the front or back of the vehicle, but not both. In slippery conditions, AWD systems distribute more power to the wheels with the most traction. This is very helpful when accelerating but does not enhance performance when turning and braking on slick roads. It is, however, an improvement over FWD and RWD. An AWD and all-season tire combination could work in areas where snow is not too frequent and for driving on roads that are constantly plowed.
  • 4WD — This layout sends power to all wheels equally. Vehicles with 4WD usually have a low range of gears and are manually engaged (meaning 4WD does not operate at all times). It is good for all kinds of conditions, including unplowed or rough roads. It is a good alternative for rural driving, especially if there are steep grades where low gearing is needed.

Are all-season tires good for snow?

All-season tires can suffice for some vehicle models in mild winter conditions. However, their rubber and tread is designed for a wide variety of conditions, so if you run an all-season tire in winter, you will sacrifice performance in some areas.
Dedicated snow tires have softer rubber compounds that preserve grip at low temperatures, their tread is specifically designed to bite into snow, and they may even have studs. These features will not be present on all-season tires, which also have to be able to handle hot temperatures and large amounts of water on roadways, requiring harder rubber and different tread patterns.

Best tire for rain

If you live in a place where winter brings rain rather than snow, the biggest risk to avoid will most likely be hydroplaning rather than slipping and sliding on slush. Regardless of the model, the best tire for rain is one with deep tread.
One of tread’s main functions is to quickly push water out from underneath the tire so the rubber surface stays in contact with the road. The deeper the grooves in the tread, the more effectively the tire will perform this function.
Therefore, the best tire for rain is one with good tread depth, which can be maintained by rotating tires, switching out winter and summer tires according to the season, and replacing tires before the tread reaches a depth of 2/32nds of an inch.
Snow tires have a tread pattern optimized for biting into snow, ice, and slush, not necessarily for flushing water out from under tires. For that reason, snow tires are not the best solution for prolonged rainy conditions. All-season or summer tires will provide better protection against aquaplaning.

Winterizing your vehicle

Beyond changing your driving style and equipping your car with the right tires, there are a few more steps you can take to get your vehicle ready for winter.

Electrical system

Car batteries are less effective at colder temps (they can be 35% weaker at the freezing point), so make sure yours is well charged and in good condition. Check wires for wear, since cables become more brittle at lower temperatures and are more likely to fail, potentially stranding you on a frigid roadway.

Brake system

Winter condition means more strain on your braking system due to increased moisture, corrosion, and potential rust on rotors. Have your braking system inspected to make sure everything in good shape.

Exhaust system

Winter can be rough on exhaust systems too. Since they are located on the vehicle’s undercarriage, they are more prone to damage from salt or other chemicals used to clear roads, from moisture, or from the jolts caused by potholes or bumpy ice and snow. When moisture gets into your muffler or other parts of your exhaust system, it can mix with the exhaust and become highly corrosive, which could lead to exhaust leaks.
These leaks can potentially be fatal, as they can cause carbon monoxide to build up inside the vehicle. It is very important to have your exhaust system inspected for weakness or damage before winter weather sets in to avoid this dangerous situation. Also, if you are stuck in traffic or in snow with the engine running, make sure your tailpipe is free of ice and snow, and roll down your windows from time to time to flush out any accumulating gases.

Heating and cooling system

Make sure your heater and defrosters are in good working condition so you are comfortable while driving and never loose visibility due to frost or condensation. In your engine’s cooling system, use at least 1/2 to 2/3 antifreeze (consult your vehicle’s manual for the exact number). Different coolants are rated to different temperatures, so add the right one based on the temperature extremes in your area. You can severely damage your motor if you do not have adequate antifreeze protection.

Find your tires

To get the right winter tires for your vehicle and region, contact your nearest tire dealer.

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