Surviving Winter Driving
Five common mistakes and how to avoid them.
Snowstorms, slippery roads, and chilly temperatures are the primary causes of many accidents during winter. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you are 36 percent more likely to be in a car accident in January than in July.
The image of a driver's-ed car buried up to its doors in a snowbank is a poignant reminder for Sgt. Brian Copple of the Illinois State Police. It illustrates how quickly one can lose control in snowy conditions.
Fortunately, no one was injured that day in Normal, Ill. "However, pride was very much hurt," Copple says.
The event happened like many winter driving accidents. The student driver lifted off the gas and slammed on the brakes in an effort to slow down. The road was icy, so the car lost traction and started to spin out of control. It skidded across four lanes of traffic and lodged itself in the snowbank — right in front of a busload of the driver's classmates.
"All the kids were jeering," Copple says. "The students and the instructor had to kind of dig their way out of the car because the doors wouldn't open. The poor kid never lived it down." Luckily, he did live.
Many motorists make the same mistakes: They get overconfident, drive too fast and overreact when something goes wrong. "Most people tend to accelerate too hard, brake too soon, steer too much — in other words, they panic," says Mark Osborne, a program manager and instructor at Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center in Calumet, which runs a winter driving school.
It takes foresight and finesse to properly control a vehicle in slippery conditions, and the actions required to do so are often counterintuitive. Here are five common mistakes that experts say drivers make in the snow and ice, and what you can do to avoid them.
Mistake No. 1 – Driving Too Fast
When the temperature is below freezing and snow or rain starts to fall, stay at a speed where you feel most comfortable. Remember, it can take a vehicle nine times longer to come to a stop in wintry conditions.
Driving too fast in freezing and snowy weather is the most common cause of winter mishaps.
People often get overconfident driving on interstates, assuming that the roads are in better shape than they really are, Copple says. "They're not anticipating that the precipitation has had the opportunity to freeze. It's a false sense of security."
Drivers of vehicles with four-wheel drive can be particularly prone to audacious behavior behind the wheel. Experts caution drivers not to overestimate the capabilities of four-wheel drive. It can improve traction, but it does not improve cornering and braking effectiveness in slippery conditions, they say.
Tips to avoid this mistake: Slow down — obviously. When the temperature is below freezing and snow or rain starts to fall, that should be a clear signal to ease off the accelerator, even if the road surface seems safe.
There's no magic speed limit for snow or ice. "There are some times that literally 15 or 20 miles an hour is too fast," Copple says. "And there are other times that one could certainly drive 45." Pay close attention to how your vehicle behaves on the road and slow down if you feel the wheels start to slip.
Snow and rain aren't the only indicators of slick roads. "Sometimes just a little bit of humidity will cause black ice," says Mark Cox, director at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which instructs "everyone from military special forces in night-vision goggles all the way down to kids who've just gotten their driver's license." Err on the side of caution.
Mistake No. 2 – Not Looking Far Enough Ahead
Fog, rain, and snow severely reduce visibility (as well as road grip and control). Be sure to keep your wits about you and scan far down the road so you can identify issues before they become problems.
Experts agree that many people don't look far enough ahead to identify issues before they become problems. "And that's typical of most every driver, whether it's on pavement or on ice or snow," Cox says.
Anticipating problems well in advance of reaching them on the road is especially critical in winter driving because it takes four to 10 times longer to stop on snow or ice than it does on bare asphalt.
Tips to avoid this mistake: Continually scan the road ahead to identify potential issues, such as an icy patch, a wreck, debris in the roadway or inclines and curves that could pose a problem when traction is low.
Look out for bridges, overpasses and parts of the road that don't get direct sunlight, because these tend to ice over faster than other surfaces.
When roads are slick, experts recommend increasing the following distance from vehicles ahead to at least twice the 3-second minimum recommended by the National Safety Council. Larger vehicles should increase the following distance even more.
Mistake No. 3 – Slamming On the Brakes
Don't pound the brake pedal when something unexpected happens. Anti-lock brakes will enable wheels to keep turning and allow you to maintain control of steering. If you don't have anti-lock brakes, use the threshold braking technique: pump, look and steer.
Many motorists will instinctively pound the brake pedal when something unexpected happens. On dry roads, that's usually not a problem. But on slick roads it is, because once the tires lock up and lose traction, you lose all control of the vehicle.
And when a car is skidding with the wheels locked up, pressing the brakes harder makes things worse — yet it might be the first reaction many drivers have.
"As soon as you lock the wheels up, you've lost braking effect, so it's important to adjust quickly," Cox says. "As long as the wheel is rolling, you still have traction and braking force."
Tips to avoid this mistake: First of all, don't panic and don't overreact when something unexpected happens. Don't automatically jam on the brake pedal.
Going back to the example of the student driver above, Copple says that lifting off the gas and letting the car naturally slow down would have been the correct course of action.
When you do have to brake, the technique to use on slick roads depends on whether your car has an anti-lock brake system.
"If you do have ABS brakes, just put your foot down and let technology do its thing," Cox says.
If your car doesn't have ABS, you have to be more judicious with the brakes and pump them when trying to stop on slick roads. "If you brake too hard and lock up the wheel, you need to release quickly, let it roll, regain traction and then try to brake again and again and again, which is basically just a manual version of what ABS does for you," Cox says.
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Granted four wheel drive is nice to get around with in the winter, but four wheel drive helps with traction to get moving. When you are sliding on ice they are just heavier and you will slid farther and faster. Good tires on any vehicle is just common sense.
Four wheel drive is a tool to help you get around it does not make you invincible. When the snow is deep is when the four wheel drive shines with the extra clearance and traction.
Drive to the conditions, be courteous, but most important leave yourself extra time to get where you are going.