Winter is the most challenging season for car drivers. Weather conditions keep changing and the risks associated with driving a car on a snowy or icy road increase pretty quickly. The best way to arrive in one piece at your destination is always to adapt your driving style to the road condition. Being prepared to face various emergencies and making sure your car is ready to handle whatever winter throws at it is essential to safely drive through winter.
In this article, we will share some of the best tips and tricks you should know before taking your car out for a spin in the worst winter condition possible and ensure you stay safe and sound until spring comes around again.
Properly Prepare Your Vehicle for Winter Weather
During winter times, car drivers are more likely to encounter difficult road conditions such as snow, ice, water, cold weather, and low visibility. To make sure your vehicle is properly prepared to drive on ice and snow all winter long, always follow these basic steps.
Install winter tires
Tires are probably the most essential point when it comes to safe winter driving. You should always install winter tires on your vehicle. That’s simply not negotiable. Winter tires are designed to provide better traction in harsh winter conditions and will make your winter driving a lot easier. Depending on where you live, winter tires may already be required by law but, even if they aren’t in your area, you should always equip your car winter tires if the temperature drops below 7° Celsius at any time during the winter season.
Winter tires are identified by a pictogram, printed on their side, representing a 3 peak mountain and a snowflake called the 3PMSF symbol. To receive the 3PMSF certification, tires must meet high-performance standards for traction in winter conditions. This certification should not be confused with mud and snow tires (M + S). This type of “4 seasons” tires is only good to be used all year long if you live in California or somewhere where there is no “real” winter. They are not suitable for use in Canadian winter weather for example.
You should also check the air pressure of your tires regularly. While this should be done regularly no matter the outside weather, it’s especially important during winter. Good-quality, well-inflated winter tires will give you the best traction possible and will also improve the overall fuel efficiency of your vehicle, which is not to neglect.
Inspect your brakes regularly
Always have the brake system on your car checked on a regular basis to ensure balanced braking. If you can feel the vehicle pulling to the side when applying the brakes or if the car seems to drag when the brake pedal is released, have it checked by a trustworthy auto mechanic.
While having a brake system in good shape is always important, jammed brake pads or sticking calipers causing the car to pull to either side when braking can easily send your car out of control, especially when braking on a slippery surface or in a curve. Stuck calipers could even cause a wheel to suddenly block which would surely send your car into an uncontrollable spin. Worn out brake pads will also considerably extend the distance required to stop your vehicle which could make the difference between a near miss and rear-ending the car in front of you.
Make sure you have sufficient windshield washer
Before leaving for a drive with your car, always check the windshield washer tank and make sure it’s full. Always use a fluid suitable for temperature as low as -40 °C or the fluid may freeze up in the lines and prevent the whole system from working. Driving in the winter without windshield washer fluid can reduce your visibility, especially when driving in near 0°C weather.
Think ahead before you hit the road
The best strategy to stay safe while driving is always to avoid driving in bad weather whatsoever. But we all know this is not always an option. If you absolutely need to get somewhere in the winter, check the weather forecast and road conditions before leaving. Allow more time to get to your destination and, if road conditions are really bad, wait for them to improve.
When traveling, always let someone know where you are going, what route you’ll be taking and the expected arrival time. If something happens, at least someone will be looking for you. If driving becomes too risky while on the road, find a safe place to stop and wait for the weather to get better. In such a case, it is often better to park your car and take shelter somewhere.
A good idea is to keep an emergency kit including the following items in the trunk of your vehicle:
- a shovel;
- sand or cat litter;
- traction aids;
- a tow strap;
- emergency flares;
- extra warm clothes and winter boots;
- jumper cables;
- basic tools;
- matches and a “survival” candle placed in a metal box;
- a blanket (preferably a survival blanket).
How to drive in winter conditions
The best advice when driving in the winter is to slow down.
Reducing your driving speed is the best preventive measure of all. There’s no questioning that. When there’s presence of snow and ice on the pavement, tires grip 10 times less than on dry asphalt. The posted speed limits are always based on ideal road conditions, and not winter conditions. On snowy roads, drive slower than usual and expect your car’s braking distance to be much longer. Leave a greater distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you. The braking distance on a snow-covered road can be up to four times longer than when driving on a dry road.
Be gentle with the steering wheel as well as the gas and brake pedal. Point to where you want the vehicle to go by applying slow and precise movements. Quick lane changes and jerky steering during braking or acceleration can easily cause your car to skid.
Stay alert and slow down when approaching bridges and overpasses. Bridges are often iced over, even when the deck is cleared of snow. Always remember that bridges freeze faster than roads, which tend to be isolated from the cold by the dry land underneath.
How to brake on slippery roads
The later you apply the brakes, the harder you’ll have to press on the pedal. And the harder you must press the brake pedal, the riskier it becomes, especially when braking in a curve. Braking suddenly when driving on ice will increase the chance that the rear wheels try to overthrow the front wheels, often leading to a loss of control of the vehicle.
Brake in a straight line
Braking is always more effective in a straight line. When approaching a curve, it’s preferable to slow down before the curve than to brake while turning the wheels. Braking while steering on an ice-covered road can cause understeering which will often send the car out of trajectory.
Braking with and without Anti-lock Braking System
If your car is not equipped with ABS
If your car is not equipped with an anti-lock braking system, suddenly pressing the brake pedal may cause the wheels to lock, especially when driving on icy pavement. When the wheels are locked or the car is sliding, turning the steering wheel will not affect the direction the car is going. This is the main reason why the wheels need to stay free, even if they have almost no traction on the road.
To prevent that, you need to carefully depress the brake pedal while preventing the wheels from locking. This is quite easy to do when driving normally but it’s easier said than done when you need to perform an emergency brake.
The safest way to stop the car in the shortest distance possible is to apply the brakes as hard as you can without blocking the wheels. When you feel the car starting to skid, it means that one of the wheels is locked. Quickly release the brake pedal and press it again in the same way. Press and depress the brake pedal as quickly as you can until the car stops.
If your car is equipped with ABS
In this case, no need to be careful not to lock the wheels or to pump the brake pedal at all. The ABS will take care of that for you. Simply press down the brake pedal as hard as you can and wait for the vehicle to stop. When the ABS is working, you may feel the brake pedal vibrate. No need to worry. This is the ABS module is doing its thing.
The ABS prevents the wheels from blocking by pumping the brakes way faster than a human being can. If your car is equipped with such a system, let it do the job for you. Pumping the brake pedal would only make things worse.
What to do when your car starts skidding
When your car starts skidding, you’ll have to have quick reflexes to save yourself from ending in a ditch or, even worse, crashing into another car. When it comes to controlling a skid, practice makes perfect. It’s highly recommended to try the following techniques before actually facing a skid situation.
First of all, it’s important to understand that there are different types and levels of slippage, and also different causes. Depending on whether your car is oversteering or understeering, and the type of drivetrain, the correct reaction will differ.
But here are the basic generalities to apply in case a skidding occurs:
- Stay as calm as possible. Keep your cool and evaluate the situation.
- Look in the direction you want to go and point the steering wheel in that direction.
- If your car is equipped with a manual transmission, put it in neutral.
- Do not brake. If you were going too fast, it’s already too late and braking suddenly will only make things worse.
What to do when skidding with a RWD vehicle
In such a case, skidding occurs when the wheels block, lose their grip or when the front wheels slide, and the real wheels try to overthrow them.
To regain control of your vehicle:
If sudden braking has caused the car to skid, completely release the brake pedal.
If the rear wheels start to lose their grip on the pavement, slightly release the throttle and wait for the wheels to regain traction on the road.
If your vehicle is equipped with an automatic transmission, put the transmission in neutral. If it’s a manual, quickly depress the clutch pedal. Putting the car in neutral will help balance the rear wheels’ speed with the front wheels.
Keep your eyes on the road. When their car starts to slide sideways, most people will look towards where it’s going to hit i.e. the ditch, a streetlight, the curb. Do not do that. If you want to regain control of your vehicle before hitting something, you need to look where you want the car to go so you know when and how to react. Watching the ditch coming towards you will not help at all.
Turn the steering wheel in the direction you want to go.
Once your vehicle has returned to a straight line, re-engage the transmission.
What to do when skidding with a FWD vehicle
With a FWD car, it’s a lot harder to lose control simply while accelerating. A FWD vehicle will instead slide after suddenly stepping on the brakes or when driving too fast for the road conditions. Keep in mind that FWD vehicles can no longer be steered when the front wheels lose their grip. The important point will be to regain traction as quickly as possible so you can, at least, steer to avoid obstacles in front of you if completely regaining control or stopping the car is out of the question.
To regain control of your vehicle:
If sudden braking caused the car to skid, completely release the brake pedal.
If the front wheels have lost their grip, slightly release the throttle.
Put the transmission in neutral. If it’s a manual, quickly depress the clutch pedal.
Wait until the front wheels have recovered their grip on the road. A slight tap on the brake pedal can also help to put some load back on the front wheels.
Re-engage the transmission.
What to do when skidding with an AWD vehicle
Because all-wheel-drive vehicles generally have better grip in winter conditions, they sometimes lead drivers to think they are in better control than they really are, ultimately leading to driving faster than they should. AWD vehicles often slide when cornering while driving at a higher speed than recommended for the road condition.
To regain control of your vehicle:
Release the brake pedal or throttle completely.
Put the gearbox in neutral.
Look in the direction where you want your vehicle to go.
Wait until the wheels have recovered their grip on the road.
Return the transmission to a normal driving position and step on the gas pedal when the vehicle is oriented towards the road.
Drive at a safe speed.
* Real petrolheads will say that, with an AWD vehicle, counter-steering and flooring the pedal to drift around the corner could also work, and, even though they would be correct, such a reaction is dangerous and could result in an even worse situation. Drifting should only be performed by trained or professional drivers… or those with a death wish.
To sum it all up
Understanding the basic principle of safe winter driving will help you drive around and stay safe behind the wheel all year round. A good set of winter tires is still essential though. Nonetheless, even if you drive the best car in the world, equipped with the best set of rubbers that money can buy, you might still end up sliding off the road or stuck in a snowbank once in a while. Make sure you are correctly prepared to face the worst-case scenario.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
… especially during the winter season.