The calendar hasn’t been flipped to November yet, but if you live where it gets cold, winter is just around the corner. Some places have already seen their first snowfall of the year, a reminder that five months of harsh weather is coming. Why, you may ask, is a guy who lives in Florida writing about winter driving? It’s simple: for 16 years, I lived in states like Colorado, Minnesota and New jersey, all of which get winters that range from “bad” to “horrific”. In Minnesota, for example, the best you can hope for is snow, since the alternative is black ice. That’s pretty much a guarantee from November through March, so you get used to driving under the worst possible circumstances.
Below are five things I’ve learned along the way to help you and your fellow motorists stay safe. Some are obvious, others may not be, but all of them will give you some kind of benefit. If you’re lucky enough to live where snow is as common as frogs falling from the sky, feel free to laugh as you read what other motorists have to deal with. It may get cold in northern Florida, but you don’t have to shovel cold.
If You Get Snow, You Need Winter Tires
It never ceases to amaze me how many people avoid buying winter tires. Maybe it’s because they have too much (undue) confidence in their all-season radial tires, or perhaps it’s because they’ve bought into the myth of front wheel drive or all wheel drive traction. In most cases, it’s probably a question of money; the $300 you’d spend on winter tires buys a couple of really nice dinners, or maybe it buys you an intake or exhaust.
That’s a false economy when you consider the cost of an accident on icy roads. Sure, your insurance will pay for damage, but only after you pay your deductible (which is probably more than a good set of winter tires cost). What if you get sued by the guy you hit? How about time missed at work or medical bills? All of these are a lot more expensive than a set of winter tires.
Modern winter tires are specifically built to provide the best possible traction in snow, ice and low temperatures. All season radials aren’t, since winter driving is only a small percentage of what they’re tasked with. Trust me on this: dedicated winter tires make a huge difference, and are well worth the investment.
Take The Time To Clean Snow And Ice Off Your Car
Over the years, I’ve probably witnessed a dozen accidents caused by ice sliding off one vehicle and hitting another. I’ve seen windshields shatter from ice off another car, so it’s not just semi trucks that are a problem. Every year there are a few fatal accidents caused by ice as well, so it never ceases to amaze me how few drivers take the time to clean off their cars.
If you have snow accumulated on the roof of your car, take a soft bristled broom and sweep it off. Don’t let it refreeze and build up, because that’s where problems start. Most northern states have laws on the books requiring you to clean your car, but they’re about as enforced as cell phone laws; besides, this should be common sense. A few minutes with of effort could save a lot of grief, and just think about how pissed you’d be if another driver’s carelessness cost you a new windshield. Or killed someone close to you.
Four Wheel Drive / All Wheel Drive Doesn’t Mean Unlimited Traction
For years, I marked the official start of winter by the first SUV I saw in a ditch or up against the guardrail. Their drivers never learned that 4wd or AWD may help get you moving when conditions are slippery, but they don’t necessarily help you stop quicker or turn any quicker. Even on a four-wheel-drive vehicle, traction is largely determined by tires, and I’d take a rear-drive car with good snows over an AWD truck with all season radials.
Also remember that SUVs generally have a high center of gravity and very little weight over the rear wheels, which makes them particularly evil-handling on loose surfaces. Learn to drive your truck on gravel or sand, and then you’ll have a fairly good idea of how it will behave in snow. Don’t be that guy that makes other drivers say, “Hey, winter is officially here.”
If Your Stuck, Traction Control May Be Working Against You
Generally speaking, modern traction control systems are a great driver aid. They reduce wheelspin, which in turn can reduce understeer or oversteer, helping to keep us going in the direction we intend. On the downside, there are times when you want wheelspin, like when you’re trying to fight your way up a steep, icy road or climb out of a snowed-in parking space. If you find yourself stuck, try turning off the traction control.
Make Sure You’ve Got Alcohol Based Windshield Wiper Fluid In Your Reservoir
If you live in snow country, you probably use your windshield washer all the time in winter months. It helps to clean an icy windshield, it takes care of road salt and makes light work of built up snow. Chances are good you don’t use it nearly as much in the summer months, which is why you filled it with water when you ran out of washer fluid last June. Congratulations: your washer fluid reservoir is now a block of ice, rendering it utterly useless. On the plus side, all the Legionairre’s disease bacteria you’ve been cultivating has probably been killed off.
Roads Freeze At Temps Above 32 Degrees
If you keep an eye on the outside temperature display in your car, remember this: roads can freeze at temperatures above the freezing point. Particularly susceptible areas include bridges (where air can circulate above and blow the road surface, lowering its temperature), underpasses and shaded areas. Is the road wet or is that black ice? You may not know until you’re trying to stop or turn on it, so give yourself a little extra distance to react, even if the temps aren’t below freezing.
If there’s one thing to remember about winter driving, it’s this: don’t be an asshat. Give other drivers a little more room, especially when conditions are bad. Signal other drivers that traffic is slowing down by tapping your brakes (thus flashing your brake lights), which gives them a bit more notice. Slow to a reasonable speed when cornering, and try to anticipate where roads will be icy. In short, pay attention behind the wheel and you’ll get through winter with as little drama as possible.