Yes, bridges freeze before roads. You know to stay home during really bad weather and to drive slowly, but this is New England. If you want to survive, your winter driving skills need to go beyond basic driver's ed. Isn't it time you improved your driving skills when it comes to winter weather?
We've assembled the best tips for driving in snow, slush, and ice so you can make your drive safer this year. Become a pro at driving in the snow or see how many tips you already know.
1. Use the right mode
If you have a snow mode, use it. Depending on your car, it may be the little button showing a car with squiggly lines behind it or it may just read "SNOW." In snow mode, the systems know you are on a low-grip surface. Read more here.
2. Test before the real deal
Get to know your car and your current environment. Even if you've had the same car for a decade, every snow storm is different. Know exactly how much traction you have and how to manage it by testing it. Only do this when no one is behind you! If you feel your ABS kick in, you have a low grip situation.
3. Ignore that rule about a certain number of car lengths
You've probably heard you need to keep a distance of at least three car lengths between you and the other vehicle in order to break safely. This is faulty advice in ideal road conditions and it's certainly worth forgetting in bad road conditions. Rather than guess about car lengths, wait until the vehicle in front of you passes a stationary object, such as a mailbox or a road sign, and count. You need to reach eight to ten seconds to really be safe in poor weather conditions.
4. Drive like you have a hot cup of coffee
We know to slow down, but sometimes driving carefully takes more brainpower than it should. Sudden movements, breaking, turning, or accelerating quickly, are what lead to accidents. Pretend you have a burning hot cup of coffee or hot cocoa on the dashboard. You cannot spill that cup! Use this trick if you're having trouble remembering to drive smoothly. Remember, each sudden movement is a chance to lose control of your vehicle.
Have a teen new to driving? Try actually putting a cup of liquid in their car and see how they do. Choose a safe setting and decent road conditions to show them how they need to drive when weather is poor.
5. Understand what AWD actually does
All wheel drive (AWD) varies the power sent to each wheel. AWD is constantly turned on and is an automated system, meaning the driver doesn't need to do a thing for it to work. AWD is not four wheel drive: four wheel drive systems try to equally send power to all for wheels whereas all wheel drive systems are purposefully responding and sending power where needed.
AWD can help when it come to accelerating because it will send more power to whichever wheels have the most traction. AWD provides an advantage when accelerating in a straight line. However, AWD doesn't provide any help with steering or breaking, and is absolutely not a replacement for winter tires. Most people overestimate the capabilities of their AWD when it comes to winter (learn more here). Road tests done by Consumer Reports found that AWD won’t help if you’re going too fast toward a sharp curve in the snow. Learn more about Consumer Reports' testing of AWD here.
The bottom line is that, whether you have all wheel drive or four wheel drive, rear wheel or front wheel drive, none of those systems can do a single thing if your tires don't have traction.
6. React appropriately for a front wheel skid
Understeering or a front wheel skid is the type of skid you're likely to encounter if you enter a curve on the road and are driving too fast. The front wheels of your car have lost traction and you're unable to steer, so your car heads in a straight line (but this isn't what you want to happen). Your breaks are useless because your tires have no traction. Understeering is more common in front wheel drive vehicles but it can happen in all types of cars. If your car is skidding, chances are you have a front wheel skid.
What to do: Ease off the accelerator and straighten your wheels. This will mean turning your wheels in the opposite direction of where you originally wanted to go. If you can manage it, keeping your foot slightly on the accelerator is a good idea. As suddenly accelerating causes the car to suddenly gain traction and it can then pendulum out in the other direction.
Note: these skids almost always happen when you're driving too fast for the road conditions, so slow down and see number eight. Break while your car is still heading straight and then steer into the turn.
7. React appropriately for a rear wheel skid
This is also called oversteering or fishtailing and occurs when your rear wheels have lost traction. Oversteer can happen for multiple reasons. Entering a corner with too much acceleration is one of the more common causes. Abruptly lifting your foot off the accelerator can suddenly throw the weight of the car to the front, which can cause oversteering.
In this instance, you need to ease off the accelerator and gently turn in the direction of the skid (the direction you want the car to go). If the back of your vehicle is skidding to the left, turn left. Any adjustments you make should be very small, as it is easy to overcorrect and spin in the other direction. You're trying to control the chaos and regain control, not create more chaos.
You can learn more about skidding and the differences between a rear wheel and a front wheel skid by watching this ~6min video on YouTube.
8. Understand you are not invincible
No matter what car you have, what tires you have, how much driving experience you have, how many accidents you've avoided, understand that you are not immune to risk. Most people assume that those in accidents are inexperienced, were texting on their phones, were reckless, or have bald tires. The reality is that accidents happen to everyone and being too confident leads to carelessness.
Winter driving doesn't have to be scary. Most of it is being abundantly careful, understanding your car's capabilities, and reacting calmly to stressful situations, which can be helped by practicing.
Make sure you're properly prepared in case something does go terribly wrong (remember tip number eight). Having a well-stocked emergency kit in your car is important. Find out what should be inside it here.