Safe driving in winter


Last night we had the first major snowfall of the season and I woke up this morning to find several inches of snow on the ground. I turned on the radio and heard what I expected to hear: traffic reports saying that there were accidents all over the place and urging drivers to exercise caution and leave more time to get to their destinations. In other words slow down!

It happens the first day of every winter. Over the summer, people seem to forget how to drive in winter and the first day of snow driving can be a real hazard. I can understand people who live in regions where it almost never snows being baffled about what to do on the rare occasions when it does. But there is no excuse for bad driving for the locals in the snow belt.

Fortunately for me personally, I have the luxury of flexible hours and so I usually wait at home until the rush hour clears and the streets have been cleaned and then drive leisurely in to work.

Here are a few simple rules for winter driving that everyone should follow, in no particular order:

  1. Drive more slowly than usual.
  2. All-wheel drive, traction control, and anti-lock brakes are good safety features but do not mean that you can thus drive as if it is still a dry, summer day.
  3. Just because you drive an SUV or similar vehicle does not mean that you are exempt from the laws of physics.
  4. Avoid abrupt changes in speed and direction because that is what causes loss of control.
  5. As much as possible avoid using the brake pedal and instead use the accelerator to control speed. This requires that you get into a lower gear, with the slipperier the surface the lower the gear. Lower gears prevent your car’s speed from creeping higher without you realizing it.
  6. Avoid doing something that might cause other drivers to have to abruptly change speed or direction. This means signaling your intentions well in advance and making sure that you have plenty of time and space to carry them out.
  7. Put on the damn headlights! What really enrages me are those vehicles that drive without lights when it is snowing or there is fog. It is true that there may be enough light for the driver of that vehicle to see others but that is not the point of putting on the lights. The point is to make it easier for other people to see you. This obvious truth seems to be lost on some people.

    Nothing is more maddening than making a left turn or entering an intersection or changing lanes and to find another vehicle suddenly emerge close to you because their lack of lights did not make them visible except at close range.

    Fortunately only a minority of drivers still don’t know this basic safety rule. But that raises another puzzle: when these drivers see almost everyone else having their headlights on, doesn’t it strike them that there might be a reason for doing the same and investigate? Are they completely oblivious and/or incurious to what others are doing?

  8. You really don’t save much time by speeding in city traffic and so you might as well drive slowly and take your time.
  9. Be even more careful of cyclists than you normally should be.

I am sure that readers will have other tips to add for safe winter driving.

Comments

  1. Carl says

    Thanks for sharing these, Dr. Singham. Though I live in an area that rarely gets snowfall, I’ve been involved in two car accidents recently. Both were relatively minor with no injuries (thank goodness for that), and neither was my fault, but it’s underscored for me the need to drive more defensively.

    Driving is something that almost everyone does every day, which makes it easy to get complacent and forget how dangerous the roads can be if one is not careful.

  2. mordred says

    Also: Put snow tires on your car early enough. And if you forgot, leave your car at home!

    Thanks to a budget miscalculation I was supposed to drive a small bus with summer tires through the winter when I did my civilian service year (alternative to military service in Germany). I was young and a rather inexperienced driver, so I actually tried the summer tires once during the first snowfall.

    After that, me an the other employees told the boss that either he finds the money for a new set of tires somewhere or drives the damn bus himself!

  3. ryanlangford says

    #7 really bugs me, not just in nasty weather. I come from riding motorcycles, where you spend a lot of effort to make yourself visible. With that, if I’m driving a car, I turn the headlights on regardless what the conditions are, there is simply no reason not to.

  4. Mobius says

    Several years ago I met a woman in a parking lot. We had just had a major snowfall, and she was from Singapore and wanted advise on how to drive in the snow. I told her my best advise was, “Do everything slowly.”

  5. Some Old Programmer says

    Talk to your kids about winter driving–even (perhaps especially) those that aren’t driving yet. And if you have the spare cash, it’s worth considering sending novice drivers to a winter driving school. When my kids are old enough to drive, I’ll have more peace of mind if they’ve spun out a few times while not in traffic.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    Put on the damn headlights! What really enrages me are those vehicles that drive without lights when it is snowing or there is fog. It is true that there may be enough light for the driver of that vehicle to see others but that is not the point of putting on the lights. The point is to make it easier for other people to see you.

    In 1997, I bought a Chevy S10 pickup. It had Daylight Running lights. I think they were less bright than the regular headlights, but you could not turn them off. I knew that insurance actuaries had determined that daytime headights helped prevent accidents, so I thought they were great.
    In 2011, I leased a Prius. No DRLs at all. Why?
    In 2014, I leased another Prius. Now DRLs are an option on the headlight switch. They do reduce my mileage a bit, but so what? Why are people allowed to turn them off? makes no sense to me.

  7. conrod says

    I like this, Mano. I come to FTB for hard stuff about atheism, religion, etc., but always have a look at your blog – Jesus may or may not have existed, but do you know how to bowl a googly or drive safely in snow. Lovely.

  8. Mano Singham says

    conrod,

    I know what a goggly is and how to bowl it in theory but alas, I was never able to actually bowl one.

  9. Mano Singham says

    I am shocked that the new cars don’t have them, especially cars like the Prius that attract a more civic-minded driver. I purchased a 2013 Accord and it has DRLs that cannot turn off and the 2014 Civic is the same. I had thought that they had become mandatory.

    Are you sure they reduce your mileage? I would have thought that the energy consumption would be so tiny as to be not noticeable.

  10. Heidi Nemeth says

    Regarding DRL’s: Canada mandated them, probably back around 1997. The US has not mandated them, but lots of “American” cars are made and/or sold in Canada.

    Improvement to #5: Shift into neutral when braking to a stop in snow or slippery circumstances. Keeping the car in gear means you have to stop the propulsion of the engine as well as the momentum of the car. Braking is faster and feels more controlled if the engine is disengaged from the wheels.

    I learned this technique from my dad who is a physicist. I’ve discussed it with many drivers over the years, none of whom have agreed with me or even tried the technique. I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known – because it works.

  11. Ysidro says

    There is not enough evidence that DRLs increase safety, believe it or not. The NHTSA generally agrees that they’re not necessary, even though General Motors had pushed for them to be made mandatory (probably so they could install them and claim their vehicles were already installed with them.)

    The biggest consumer complaints are glare from oncoming vehicles using DRLs and confusion with motorcyles (whichare required to always have lights on).

    Mostly it seems that DRL only work in periods of decreased natural light. Dusk, dawn, and inclement weather. Many states have a “windshield wiper” laws that mandate headlights be turned on when you use your wipers. And you really should have your lights on if the sun isn’t up in the sky. Given the first use of DRLs were in northern countries….

    If people are interested in statistics (my eyes just glaze over), there are studies available on nhtsa.gov as well as other federal and state websites.

    Please note that none of this is meant to imply agreement or disagreement on the use of DTLs on my part. I just started to do some “research” (in the internet “I wonder abou this” sense) earlier this year when I realized my 2013 Dart’s DRLs only used the “parking” lights and could be turned off and I wondered why.l

  12. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    When I was stationed in Fort Bragg, NC snowfall of as little as a half inch could cripple the whole base. Even though the speed limit on some parts of the base was just 15 mph, you would see hundreds of civilian vehicles abandoned on the side of the road with the least snowfall, all with Southern plates. I used to joke with the Southern boys that it was no wonder they lost the Civil War.

    But I’d feel safer with people who fear snow excessively than the yuppies we get here in the mountains of Upstate NY who think four-wheel drive means they can drive as fast as they like in snow. The 5-mile long guardrail going down the main road from the mountains is dented every few feet from the thousands of hits they have received. It is truly unbelievable to see how bashed up they are, and to realize that every dent represents one or more impacts. Then there are all the SUV-sized gaps in the trees everywhere…

    The best advice for driving in snow is the advice you gave: go slowly. Anyone, no matter how experienced or skilled a driver, can hit a patch of black ice or very slippery light snow and lose control. Your chances of survival are better if you are going slow when this happens.

  13. Katydid says

    My advice? PUT DOWN THE $#^&%^&^%& smartphone. Quit texting while driving. This is not the time to check on your Facebook. We had ice the other morning, and the usual suspects were driving 50 mph in a 35 while frantically downloading apps and updating their Foursquare. WTH is wrong with people?

  14. Mano Singham says

    Ysidro,

    I can appreciate that the increase in safety may not be significant enough to show up in the statistics. But unless it is shown that it actually increases the risk of accidents, I am still in favor of making DRLs mandatory because it reduces stress on other drivers, definitely for me.

    The following scenario occurs frequently on my way home from work. I have to cross a busy street. I have a stop sign but the cross traffic does not. In heavy rain or snow, I have to peer carefully both ways before entering the intersection and sometimes I have had to start and then stop suddenly because some idiot with no lights emerges at the last minute out of the gloom. These idiots who do not put on their lights also seem to be the ones who drive too fast.

  15. says

    Keep more than an eye out for pedestrians. They also disappear in the gloom and may have to cross streets outside of crosswalks which can be blocked by undrained puddles or ploughed up banks of snow. They may also be less attentive to traffic if they’re picking out their footing or have their heads down to avoid wind or snow in their eyes and are less likely to hear you coming with ears covered with toques and scarves or hoods. If you’re a pedestrian, wear something reflective or even carry an LED flashlight to shine in the direction of oncoming traffic since light clothing can disappear against background snow and dark/bright clothing will be less visible in gloom or early-onset darkness.

    Don’t pass around snowploughs however tempting it might be.

    Remember that bridges and overpasses are more prone to have black ice.

    When it’s snowing, stay off the roads unless you’re doing something necessary. If you can wait, do.

  16. Ysidro says

    Mano,

    Heavy rain or snow is a different situation than clear daylight conditions, though. One should have their lights on in such situations, just as at night. This is why several states have windshield wiper laws.

    But in clear situations, there have been complaints of glare, confusion with motorcycles, washing out pedestrians and other vehicles have all been made. US studies have shown negligible effects on safety.

    Would you take a homeopathic medicine just because it doesn’t hurt you, as long as you’re taking other treatments? If not, why would you want added features to a motor vehicle that may not decrease safety but may not increase it either?

    That said, studies in other countries are showing more promising statistics on the effectiveness of DRLs, especially in the Scandinavian countries. But that’s going back to lower light levels rather than a clear summer day further south.

    What’s interesting is that GM has been pushing for mandatory laws since the late 1980s. The main sources of complaints seem to come from some motorist advocacy groups. I do wonder how much of it is “it’s different, I hate it.” though.

  17. lanir says

    At some point while driving in winter weather you will hit some road condition that will cause you to lose control or at least have significantly less control of your vehicle. If you’re sliding for example the best reaction is to let up on the gas and coast. And if you don’t get a response when you steer because your front wheels have lost traction, don’t try to overcompensate. It just messes you up when you do get traction or keeps you from getting traction as soon.

    I would also say that while I agree you shouldn’t be messing around with a cell phone while driving, always take one in inclement weather. If the battery is low, use a car charger. Because if you drive outside of cities the roads aren’t as maintained. Drifts happen, salt may not be present, etc.

    I sometimes use the first snow that sticks to remind myself how to drive in winter if it’s been awhile (I used to move a lot, some winters I didn’t see snow). I would just start and stop a little too fast in an open area where I can’t possibly hit anything. About 30 feet was all it took really. You don’t want to be going fast when you slide so it doesn’t require much space.

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