It’s wintertime for many of us, and for some, that means snow! Whether you’re new to driving or a long-time pro, you can always learn new ways on how to drive safely in the snow. Below, RSG contributor (and snow-driver pro) Tyler Philbrook shares his top tips and recommendations.
I grew up in Northern Maine with an average snowfall of 108 inches a year. I did my paper route at the age of 12 in a snow storm that was 48 inches in one night.
Driving in the snow is just part of life for us. But for some people, it’s terrifying – and that’s where we brave drivers come in!
If it’s been a while since you’ve driven in snow last, or you’re new to an area that gets a lot of snow, here are some tips to help you drive safely in the snow.
- Be careful while braking, and pay attention to road conditions
- Make sure you have enough gas (more than half a tank) in your car – you never know how long you’ll need to wait for people and you don’t want to get cold!
- Make sure to have an emergency kit with blankets, ice scrapers, and food just in case
5 Quick Tips for Driving in the Snow
1) Don’t Drive In A Snow Storm
I spoke to several people who have driven in the snow for years, myself included, and everyone’s first tip is “don’t drive in a snowstorm.”
I know that sounds simple, and it’s true sometimes it is unavoidable, but if you’re considering driving during a snowstorm, even for extra money or bonuses or whatever Uber and Lyft are offering just…. Don’t.
2) Clear Your Vision
Before you even start driving, make sure that your car is cleaned off. Turn your car on with enough time to heat the car up and defrost the ice.
You can even install a remote start in your car, if you want to spend the money, where you can turn your car (and the heater) on without even leaving your house. This will buy you time (to make coffee for a cold day of driving!)
Regardless of whether or not you remote start or start while you’re already outside, make sure to sweep the snow off all windows and mirrors and scrape off the ice.
To make sure you do this, start getting the car ready at least 15 minutes before you need to leave.
As an added benefit of starting the car that early, you’ll find out if you need to jump your car or not when you still have enough time to do it.
3) Slow Down
If you’re driving too fast, sometimes even just the speed limit, your car can easily start to slide on ice, snow, anything. Because of that, it’s best to drive at a safe speed.
Everyone will be more comfortable with different things, but at first, try to drive around 30 miles per hour and slowly speed up until you stop feeling comfortable. At this point, go 5 to 10 miles lower than that speed to stay comfortable.
Depending on how much snow is on the road, your comfort level could be worse than other times. Main roads typically get cleared first, back roads can take hours and sometimes days, depending on where you live.
4) Be Careful Braking
Your brakes are really your best friend when driving in the snow, well, second to your tires, but we’ll discuss that later. If you hit your brakes too hard and too soon, you’ll likely slide into a ditch or worse.
To avoid that, and when you’re alone on a road, test your brakes out. While driving, tap the brakes and see how it feels on this particular road, with this particular snow storm. That way if you need to stop in an emergency, you know how your car will feel, you know how this road will feel and you can be ready for it.
5) Pay Attention to Road Conditions
There is more to snow and storms than just a blizzard. Once snow is on the ground, it can cause all kinds of other issues.
Growing up, I called them “snow snakes” because they looked like long snakes crossing the road. I now know these are called “drifting snow”, snow that the wind blows so fast close to the ground. This can be dangerous not because of the snow and wind, but because you now can’t see the road and what’s on it.
That’s one of many kinds of things that could be going on; to find out more about all types of snow, visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Your Car While Driving in the Snow
Front, Rear, or All-Wheel Drive?
First, the answer is “never rear wheel drive” when it comes to snow. I could go into greater detail, but honestly just no, you’ll slide, you’ll crash, don’t do it.
All-wheel drive seems like the best choice, and in a lot of cases that is true. However, it can lead to overconfidence, feeling like your car can “handle it”, which leads to making mistakes. Even if you do have all-wheel drive still follow all the other safety precautions while driving in snow.
Front wheel drive is a favorite among most people who live where there is a lot of snow. It’s a great option and will pull your car better than a rear wheel drive.
Anti Lock Brakes
As with anything, anti-lock brakes can be good, or they can be bad.
Without anti-lock brakes, what people will do is quickly press and let up on the brakes. This is so they can slow down quickly, but also turn and possibly hit whatever it is that’s coming up. Anti-lock brakes do that for you by simply hitting and holding down the brakes.
Why that can be an issue is when you’re also dealing with ice and snow, not only are you trying to stop, but you’re on ice that could cause your car to keep moving forward.
When I was doing my paper route on my bike there was a hill I would go down. Because of gravity, I didn’t have to pedal my pike. One day there was ice on the sidewalk I didn’t see and when I hit the brakes, my tires stopped spinning but I kept moving.
Same can be true with your car – if it hits ice and you hit the brakes, the anti-lock brakes can help if you’re not familiar with driving in the snow and ice, but most people I know turn them off while driving in the snow.
Gas in the Tank
If you live anywhere that you may need to leave quickly (hurricanes, snow storms, etc.), your goal should be to always have at least half a tank of gas.
If you are driving somewhere in the snow, I would have at least that all the time. You don’t want to be somewhere and have to push your car in the snow, or not be able to have the heat on while you wait for a tow truck to pull you out.
While Driving in the Snow
Leave Twice as Much Room as Normal
When driving in bumper to bumper traffic in Florida, it feels odd to me most of the time. I’ve gotten used to it, but in Maine you always leave several car lengths in front of you.
Why is this? Simply, in ice, your car will take longer to stop. If you were right behind someone and it will take 6 feet for you to stop in the summer, allow yourself at least 12 feet. How I always decided how far someone should be in front of me is I would pick a landmark, a particular tree, street sign, building, anything and count from when the car in front of me passed it until I passed it. If it was anything less than 10 seconds, and I was going 50 MPH or more, I would slow down to give more space.
If you don’t and you do crash, don’t think that it’s not your fault because of the weather, note what one law firm says.
“Many people are surprised to discover that they are still at fault if they cause a car accident during a snowstorm, are involved in a collision on icy roads or are involved in a black ice accident. In that case, your own liability insurance should pay for the other driver’s damages. You can’t blame the weather for an accident. Drivers have a duty to drive safely and appropriately no matter what the conditions.” – Injury Trial Lawyer
Not only will you be in an accident that could harm you, your passengers, and whoever you hit, but it will be your fault.
Turn Into A Spin
If you drive in the snow long enough, you will slide, or worse spin out. When that happens you have to fight your instincts.
If the car is spinning your first thought is to hit the brakes and turn out of the spin. Instead what you need to do is wait, stay calm, and turn into the spin. When you do the car will straighten out and you’ll be able to keep going.
Here’s a video on how to get out of a slide:
It’s easy for me to write and say that now, but almost impossible to do in the moment. You are literally fighting every fiber of what you want to do, and it doesn’t sound like it will work. But I can tell you from personal experience, it does.
Leave Extra Time to Pull Onto a Road
Just like you leave extra space while in motion, when you’re about to pull onto a road, you need to leave extra time for that.
First, your car won’t go as fast on the snow as you used to, so take that into consideration. In addition, you have to consider the possibility for sliding and for the car already on the road to hit its brakes, if necessary. If you have any doubt, don’t pull out.
Drive at a Steady Pace
I get it, you may be nervous driving in the snow, but the worst thing you can do is continue to change the pace by speeding up, hitting your brakes, then speeding up again.
Find a comfortable speed and stick with it. Other drivers will be able to judge their distance off that, and if you are too slow, the other people will go around you.
Also, if you’re constantly hitting your brakes every time you get “too fast”, you’re far too likely to slide.
Additional Tips for Driving Safely in the Snow
Don’t Underestimate “Light Snow”
If you have driven in a lot of snow, you might think driving in less snow, or light snow is going to be easier. Don’t fall into this trap.
My brother was driving home one night, a road he drove well over a hundred times, it wasn’t even snowing – in fact it was clear out that night.
As he took a turn he hit some black ice and his car flipped 3 times before it stopped. He was fine, but it just goes to show that no matter how used to and comfortable you are, you can still get into trouble if you aren’t paying attention.
What About Snow Tires?
Every single person I know who has lived where it snows and never had snow tires all say they don’t need them. Every so often, one of them will get snow tires one year, there will be a good deal, or they’ll borrow someone’s car. After that, they get snow tires every single year.
You can get by with all terrain tires, but you’ll do far better if you get snow tires. They have metal in the tire that grips much better and will help you accelerate and brake smoother.
Just like with all terrain tires, get the absolute best you can afford.
Things To Keep In Your Car
There are some things that should always be in your car if you live in the north and are driving in the snow.
Whether you’re driving in snow or not you should always have at least a basic emergency kit in your car.
If you live where it could be cold and are driving in the snow, then you should also have additional things, such a blanket, to help keep you warm in case you break down.
Growing up I never got in any car at any time during the year that didn’t have at least two ice scrapers. One that has a brush, and another that just was an ice scraper. They are necessary to clean your car off and ensure you’re driving safe.
Rock Salt And Kitty Litter
We would also at times use kitty litter, so that you get a little more traction than the salt. It’s good to have some of either of these, or even both, in your car especially in the winter.
Another thing you should never be without is a good snow shovel. Depending on the size of your car, you may not be able to have a large one, but a small or even foldable one can fit in any car.
If you do end up in a snowbank, you can literally dig yourself out if you have a shovel nearby.
When it’s cold, you can never have too many clothes with you. If you are in an accident and your car won’t start, you’ll need some extra clothes to keep you warm. Throw a sweater, coat, and some blankets in the back of your car while driving during the snow season.
Finally, you never know how long you’ll be somewhere or how long a tow truck will take to get to you. Have some food just in case.
One main reason for this, you burn more calories when it’s cold than when it’s hot. People traveling to the North Pole have to eat 9,000 calories a day. What you should have on hand depends on what you like to eat – obviously, nothing that goes bad quickly, but granola bars, nuts, jerky, etc. all hold up well and last a long time.
Whether you’ve never driven in the snow, or you’ve been doing it your whole life, it can be dangerous. With a little precaution and planning it can be done, and done safely.
In some cities, Lyft (and maybe Uber) is offering a ‘snow bonus’, where during the winter, you will earn extra money on top of your trip. This will happen when more passengers are requesting rides and there are fewer drivers.
Just keep in mind – if you don’t feel comfortable with driving in the snow, don’t do it! It’s more important to keep yourself and your car safe than earn a few extra dollars.
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-Tyler @ RSG