This is the third and final part of a 3-part series on winter driving tips that are often not mentioned or discussed in enough depth.
17. Clear snow and ice off your vehicle before you start driving. Most winter driving tips include this one. But it is mind-boggling how many folks neglect to clear their back windows, mirrors, or even their side windows, leaving them essentially driving blind. Not to mention the huge piles of snow off their roofs, hoods, and deck lids, which often blow off in chunks in the most inopportune moments to the detriment of those traveling behind them. And if you see a vehicle that has not been properly cleaned off, assume that its driver may not see you—and watch out for it accordingly.
18. Drive your own path, not that of others. One well-intentioned tip sometimes offered is to drive in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you if fresh snow is falling, to take advantage of slightly better traction and to use the tracks as a guide. While this can indeed be helpful, the problem is that it tends to cause your eyes to drop to the space right in front of you to follow the tracks—and not up way ahead down the road where you should be looking. It also can lead you to unwittingly repeat whatever errors the vehicles ahead are committing—improper lane positioning, even veering off the road. Avoid blindly following others.
19. Keep your wheel wells cleared. Some cars are prone to significant snow buildup inside the wheel wells, especially at highway speeds. The snow can accumulate to the point that the extra unbalanced weight causes the vehicle to shimmy or wobble, similar to a flat tire. Always keep a long-handled tool such as a shovel or sturdy snowbrush with an ice scraper handy in the car for scooping out this extra snow.
20. Get around snowplows and big trucks—but give them enough room. There’ll be times, especially on highways, when you will need to pass snowplows and semi-tractor trailers, or they’ll want to get around you. Such huge vehicles often travel slowly and kick up enormous amounts of blinding snow, which make seeing and passing them very tricky. The key is to give them plenty of room. Don't zoom right up behind them, then shoot out sideways into their snow clouds to pass them. A surprising number of snowplow-vehicle collisions occur on American roads, usually the result of inattentive or impatient drivers.
- Never attempt to pass a snowplow on the right; newer plow technology uses wider wings that can clear both the lane of travel and the shoulder simultaneously. Billowing snow clouds can prevent a driver attempting to pass on the right from seeing this blade until it’s too late.
- Plan your passing early and carefully—starting as much as a quarter mile behind to give these vehicles a wide berth. Wait to pass until you see that the left lane is reasonably clear of major ice and snow that could interfere with your vehicle’s tracking during the passing phase. And never pass on the crest of a hill or any place with a limited sightline.
- During the actual passing, stay as far away from the snowplow or semi truck as possible but not so far as to risk veering off the road or shoulder. Keep your speed cautious but steady—hesitation and quick acceleration are not your friends today. With big trucks you may feel a draft coming off them that can sway your vehicle a bit as you pass, and there’ll be a few moments when you can’t see the road with the snow cloud, but don’t be afraid and don’t panic. Taking a deep breath and exhaling forcefully in these moments can help you relax.
- After passing, the worst thing you can do is slip right back directly in front of big trucks and snowplows. They can’t stop as quickly as you can in dry weather—what makes you think they can in worse conditions?
21. Don’t use cruise control and keep both hands on the wheel. By now it should be pretty obvious why.
22. Get winter tires. If you live in or anticipate driving regularly in areas with icky winter weather, one of the best safety investments you can make is to get winter or snow tires. The two are slightly different—snow tires have less highway stability and are noisier but have better ice traction than their winter tire counterparts. But both differ from regular all-season tires in that they’re made with softer rubber compounds that don’t become as hard and rigid in very cold temperatures, they have different tread designs that “bite” better in snow and ice, and they tend to be wider. In fact, a quality winter or snow tire on a front-wheel drive car can make it just as good as an all-wheel drive vehicle. And winter tires paired with an AWD or 4WD vehicle can make an almost unbeatable combination. Since I started using winter tires five years ago, I’ve really noticed the difference at both low and high speeds. Studded tires, however, are less advisable, unless you live in really extreme conditions. They destroy asphalt and can actually make stopping more dangerous on regular pavement.
23. Take a winter driving clinic. Some car clubs, automakers, and motoring organizations offer winter and ice driving clinics where, with the help of qualified instructors, you can practice emergency braking, slalom steering, drifts, slides, and skids. This is a great opportunity to get a feel for how your vehicle behaves on less-than-ideal surfaces before an emergency situation arises, and they can be a whole lot of fun as well. The lessons learned in these clinics can save your life. But a word of caution: Don’t get too overconfident as a result. Remember, always drive for the conditions, know the limits of yourself and your vehicle, and don’t underestimate the risks.
Do you have any other winter driving thoughts or tips to share? Questions? I'd love to hear them. Continue the conversation by commenting below or emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a safe, happy holiday and New Year!