Tips for Safe Driving on Snow and Ice
Expert Advice for Staying in Control
The best way to survive a skid on a snowy road is to avoid getting in one. Most of this article will be about how to remain in control when you're driving on snow- and ice-plagued highways. That's because teaching drivers to successfully deal with a sliding car can't be done with words. Developing those skills demands many hours behind the wheel.
If you don't (or can't) avoid a skid and your car starts sliding or spinning, and you're not already a near expert, nothing I can say will help. Humans do not rise to the occasion. Rather, we fall to our level of training and experience. But I will offer a few tips on how to gain that training and experience.
To rephrase Lee Greenwood's patriotic country anthem, "God Bless the USA," I've battled snow- and ice-covered roads from the prairie of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee; across the plains of Colorado, from the U.P. of Michigan down to Dallas. From Connecticut to California, sea to shining sea. I've faced snowy roads behind the wheel of 18-wheelers, cars, pickups and SUVs. I've performed hundreds of tire tests on snow-covered roads, attended snow-driving schools, conducted vehicle comparison tests on snowy roads, and done precision driving in the snow for photos and videos.
From this experience, here are some snow driving tips the average driver can follow to reduce the chances of a crash.
The Best Tip
In the face of really bad weather, it's sometimes best to stay home, or, if you're traveling, grab a motel room if it starts to snow. At the least, remain where you are until snowplows and sanding crews have done their work. If you crash on a snowy or icy road, you'll certainly be late — or worse.
An example: When my wife and I were newlyweds living in Dallas, I was surprised to see her getting ready to go out the door after an overnight winter storm.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To work," she said, her tone conveying the fact that she realized she'd married an idiot.
"It snowed last night," I said.
"I'm from Colorado," she said with pride (or arrogance — still hard to tell). "I can drive in snow."
"These folks are from Texas," I said. "They can't."
We turned on the radio to discover the newsperson frantically urging people to stay put: Every freeway in the Metroplex was closed. Sometimes, you have to stay where you are.
It's (Almost) All About Tires
Successful race drivers know that tires are often the difference between hero and zero. A fresh set of rubber will allow the 30th-place driver to blow by the leader who has yet to pit for new tires. The same is true in snow.
To have adequate snow traction, a tire (even a winter tire) requires at least 6/32-inch deep tread, according to Tire Rack. New passenger-car tires usually begin life with 10/32-inch of tread. Most winter tires have wear bars, of the type normally found around 3/32nds of an inch, at 6/32nds. Tread-depth gauges are not carried by every parts store but most tire stores will check tread depth for you.
The 6/32nds guidance comes from real-world experience and government rules in some northern countries: The laws there require drivers to start winter with at least 6/32nds tread. With tires, there's always the exception, and some tires will retain good bite down to 5/32nds.
It's my experience, and that of the testers at Tire Rack, that back-of-the-pack winter tires are better in the snow than the best-in-snow all-season tires. Sometimes the difference is small. Sadly, there's no way to tell except for expensive back-to-back testing.
Summer tires should more accurately be known as three-season tires. They are of the type that are often original equipment on high-performance all-wheel-drive cars, and have little to no grip in snow. I've attempted to drive max-performance tires on the snow. In below-zero weather, such tires suffered from what tire engineers call "glass transition temperature," when the rubber becomes rock-hard and can provide little traction. Most such tires offered so little grip that forward motion wasn't guaranteed: One provided more grip in reverse.
Four or None
If you opt for winter tires, get a full set or stick with all-season tires. Mounting winter tires on the front of a front-wheel-drive car will make it prone to spinning out in the snow and plowing straight off on wet or dry roads. Putting winter tires only on the back of a rear-drive car will make the car difficult to turn in snow and eager to spin in the dry. Random note: Winter tires, while almost universally terrible on dry roads, may or may not be good on wet or damp roads.
Where You Live Is a Factor
If you drive where winter roads are almost always covered with snow, four winter tires are the best choice. Look for the "snowflake on the mountain" symbol on the sidewall: This means the tire meets a tire-industry standard for snow traction.
If you live in a northern city with a good reputation for quickly plowing and sanding roads, all-season tires with plenty of tread depth (and a healthy dose of driver discretion) may be adequate. When I lived in Denver, the city and suburbs usually plowed the roads quickly. The only reason winter tires were mandatory (for me) was that I was an avid snow skier.
"What are the worst conditions you'll have to drive through?" says Woody Rogers of Tire Rack. "If going out is optional, then very good all-season tires are probably adequate. But if you have to go, then go winter."
Get ESC Magic
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is almost magic. Imagine having the ability to pause time when your car starts to slide on snow or ice. With the world clock stopped, Super Driver would instantly appear to take the wheel and save the day. ESC is that good. The bad news: If ESC can't save you, neither could NASCAR star Kyle Busch, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton or whoever you think is the best driver in the world. Getting it is not hard. About one-third of 2006 models, half of 2008 models and all vehicles from 2012 onward come with it.
ESC loses much or all of its magic if you have worn tires, drive 80 mph in a snowstorm or enter an icy corner going 20 mph too fast. ESC doesn't give you diplomatic immunity from the laws of physics.
If you're considering purchasing a used vehicle, definitely choose one with ESC.
AWD Offers No Miracles
The primary role of all-wheel drive (AWD) is to provide forward traction. AWD will get you moving and keep you moving in deep snow. It will allow you to climb the steep driveway to the front door of the ski chalet. AWD helps prevent fishtailing under acceleration, which causes many drivers of rear-wheel-drive vehicles to lose control. However, you shouldn't include "increase cornering power" in AWD's job description.
The latest smart AWD can help a vehicle turn on snowy roads — a little. However, the difference is a small fraction of that offered by winter tires or even brand-new all-season tires. Also, since AWD can do nothing to help you stop, be aware that it creates a false sense of security.
The reason: On dry or wet roads, most vehicles can decelerate far better than they can accelerate, while cornering power is closer to stopping ability. This means a lot of drivers' subconscious expectations of braking and cornering power in the snow far exceed what's truly available.
Make Sure You Can See and Be Seen
If you can't remember when you replaced your windshield wipers, it's past time for renewal. Those who expect to meet serious snow should fit wiper blades designed for winter driving. Clean the inside of your windows thoroughly. Apply a water-shedding material (such as Rain-X) to the outside. Make sure your windshield washer system works and is full of an anti-icing fluid. Run the air-conditioner on the "fresh air" option, even if you must use the "hot" setting, to remove condensation and frost from the interior of windows. Many cars automatically do this when you choose the defrost setting.
Truckers are instructed to check the operation of all lights at least once a day: Once a month isn't too much to ask of you, is it? If your headlight covers have become opaque from age or are sand-pitted, use a polishing agent or, better, fit new covers. When driving, use your headlights even at midday so that others will see you. Make sure your headlights and taillights are clear of snow.
Give Yourself a Brake
Learn how to get maximum efficiency from your brakes before an emergency. Antilock braking systems (ABS) became a popular option long before electronic stability control. Since the 2012 model year, every new car has ABS as part of ESC. It's easy to properly use ABS: Stomp, stay and steer. Stomp on the pedal as if you were trying to snap it off. Stay hard on the pedal and smoothly steer around the obstacle. (A warning: A little bit of steering goes a very long way in an emergency.) As with ESC, ABS does not suspend the laws of physics.
Learn To Catch a Skid
If the previous advice comes to naught, you'll need to know how to correct a skid.
A front-tire skid is easy: Smoothly release the accelerator, leave your hands where they are and allow the car to slow down. Turning the steering wheel more or pushing the brake pedal is like using a cancelled credit card: It does nothing good and may do something bad if the traction suddenly returns.
Learning how to catch a rear slide is a different matter. It's like learning how to hit a curveball or play the piano: It takes lots and lots of practice. Even with practice, some people never get it.
To get practice, find a "slick track" go-kart track. After you've become proficient there, go to an indoor kart track: These karts are fast, and mastering them requires all the skills required in racing. Professional car-control schools are available but the price is often steep: perhaps as much as $900 a day. However, even a small amount of auto bodywork will cost $900. Should your own body need work, $900 will buy very little plastic surgery.
If you can't justify the $900 for a pro driving school and are still determined to learn, here's an alternative: The next time it snows, find a place where you can slide your car without danger of damage or police intervention. Head out early and keep your speed low: 25 or 30 mph is plenty to get the feel. And stop before the police show up.
Regardless of your driving skill or vehicle preparation, there are some winter conditions that can't be conquered. That's why you should carry a sleeping bag and other survival equipment in the winter.