Many travelers will take to the highways and interstates this holiday season, facing snow, ice, and other winter conditions. Our family will be driving long-distance for a ski vacation in Canada, and we want to make sure we’re prepared for safe winter driving. Raised in the Tahoe, CA area known for heavy snow fall, I like to think I have a few tips for how to drive in snow and ice. Everyone on the road can arrive safely with these winter driving safety tips.
How to drive in snow and ice
1. Check road conditions before you go.
Yes, you can find road closure information on the car radio en route, but it’s much better to know what you’ll be getting into ahead of time. Bookmark highway and weather condition websites before you leave, for easy access on your smartphone. The Department of Transportation will list the appropriate sites for the states you’ll be traveling through.
2. Have emergency tools and provisions in your car.
It’s not a fun use of your money, especially since — hopefully — you won’t ever need to use all of the emergency provisions, but having the right equipment in your car is necessary. Not only will you be safer with the appropriate chains or snow tires on your car for winter travel, but having them can save your vacation: I’ve seen cars turned away at interstate check-points for failing to have the right chains. In addition to chains or snow tires (sometimes unnecessary if you have four-wheel drive, but always a good back-up), pad your luggage with extra blankets to have at the ready, and be sure to have at least one cooler of bottled water and snacks. And remember to have always have complete first-aid kit as well. During my years working as a Search and Rescue volunteer, we’d spend nights patrolling road closure areas, handing out food to stranded cars. Remember, public service volunteers can’t be everywhere at once.
Photo credit: M. Pettitt.
3. Be wary of alternative GPS routes.
We all have learned to rely on our navigation systems, but be cautious of taking alternative ‘shorter’ routes during the winter. Our GPS unit has advised us to take forest service roads instead of well-traveled highways as a shortcut to our destination, but such choices can prove hazardous, or even deadly. Before taking a new route, stop for a bite to eat or a tank of gas and ask a local if it’s a good idea.
4. Remember that slick roads can turn to icy roads after sundown or as temperatures drop.
Always decrease speed over bridges or overpasses, as these section of road can be icier, and as the sun goes down, remember that roads that were wet just hours or even minutes before may now be icy. It’s also important to make sure you can see properly in fog or darkness. Consider running your air conditioner to bring fresh air into the car (many will do so automatically on the ‘defrost’ setting). And remember it is difficult to impossible to always see black ice. Depending on where in the country you live or are traveling to, be aware of this condition.
5. Avoid over-steering if you lose traction on icy roads.
We’ve all heard this advice, but it’s surprisingly difficult to execute mid-skid; our instincts often tell us to continue turning the wheel. In fact, doing so can put yourself, your car and passengers at greater risk, as you may dart in that direction if your tires regain traction. Use your anti-lock breaks to their potential, stomping once and keeping the wheel as steady as possible. When I lived in Bellingham, WA and black ice was prevalent a week or two out of the year, I would prep myself by silently repeating, “hold the wheel,” down my hilly street when I made the turn out of my neighborhood. I skidded many times but did my best to stay calm.
Best winter driving safety tips
With planning and mental preparedness before you get behind the wheel, you will do much better when driving in less than ideal conditions. Remember to know in advance an idea of the directions to your destination — how long will you be in the car and how many miles are you going before having to turn — and eliminate distractions by turning off the volume on your mobile phone and turning off the radio. If you are traveling far for a vacation or holiday getaway, sometimes it’s worth comparing the pros and cons of driving versus flying.
There’s lots of sound advice on how to drive in snow and ice so it’s important to prepare before departing on to winter roads. The Department of Transportation also has great tips for staying safe on the road.