Driving a vehicle isn't easy, it takes lots of attention and much practice. Cruising down a nice country road in the glorious springtime sunshine is a leisurely way to spend an afternoon, but add a spring squall to the equation and the difficulty increases significantly. Drop the temperatures below the freezing mark and you have the makings of a disaster - unless you are adequately prepared for driving in winter conditions.
Snow and ice are at least occasional facts of life in most parts of the world. If you live somewhere hot, like Jamaica or Hawaii, you should only need to consult this entry if you plan to holiday somewhere north or south during the wrong time of year.
A Note on the Unpredictability of Winter Conditions
When snow first starts to fall, roads may become wet before they ice over due to the friction of constant traffic on them. Less frequently-travelled roads will ice over more quickly, and most roads will freeze overnight. Sleet and freezing rain, however, will freeze on contact if the road surface has not been previously treated. If you are unsure of the condition of the road you are travelling on, it's far better to err on the side of caution and assume everything is icy.
It's a good idea to keep some items in your vehicle at all times for emergency preparedness. Even the safest driver is at the mercy of those he or she shares the road with. Some items that will come in handy should you get stuck or stall:
Blanket or Towel - If you are stuck in winter conditions it's going to get cold fairly quickly, more quickly if you have to leave your vehicle for any reason (which you should try not to do if it seems you will be stuck for any amount of time). An old blanket or towel can be kept in the boot and comes in handy for any number of other uses as well. Thermal blankets are also available and can come in a package small enough to keep in a glove compartment or under the seat if space is an issue.
Flares - Many winter conditions make it difficult for other drivers to see you if you are stopped on the roadside. Heavy rain or snow reduces visibility, as do the crests of hills and curves in the road. After nightfall it's even more important that other drivers see your flares before they see you to avoid a collision when you're already stopped. Even when using flares, don't forget to turn your hazard flashers on as well.
First Aid Kit - Always a good idea in any conditions. It should contain bandages, instant ice packs, antiseptic, tape and scissors. You might like to keep instant heat packs there as well, which won't provide a great deal of heat but will keep your fingers or toes from freezing for several hours.
Change - Most people have at least some of this under the driver's seat1. Even if you carry a cellular phone you may find yourself in an area with no service. Change can be used to make a call from a pay phone if necessary, or buy a cup of coffee if it's available. At worst, it takes up no room and will eventually come in handy for something.
Food - It doesn't have to be much, even a can of nuts or box of crackers will do, in case you are stuck or have slid off the road someplace where you may not be found for several hours or overnight. It is probably best to keep this somewhere in the passenger compartment (not in the boot) so you will have access to it in the event you have crashed and are unable to leave the car2. If you will be travelling in more remote areas you may want to consider packing MREs3.
Torch or Flashlight - Make sure you check the batteries periodically, more frequently in winter since cold conditions zap battery power. Some larger torches are available with an A/C adapter for your car. Or, for more convenience (and a bit more money) you can even find torches that don't need power cords or batteries at all. Of course, if a torch leaves too much to chance for your comfort, a candle will provide light and warmth: two for the price of one! Keeping a box of waterproof matches with the candle may facilitate its use.
Shoes - If you normally wear dress shoes or loafers (and even if you don't) you will want to keep a spare pair of trainers or boots in your vehicle. When clearing snow off your car or away from it, a dry pair of shoes will be very welcome indeed. Keeping a spare pair of gloves in the glove compartment might prove wise for the very same reason.
Clean Your Car
You should keep an ice scraper in your car. Even if you have a garage at home and covered parking at work, eventually you'll be stuck at the shops when nasty weather hits and have to clean your car off before driving. It's important to remove as much snow and ice as possible from all windows, not just the driver's side of the windscreen. You should be able to see clearly out of all of the front and rear windows as well as side windows. Brush any snow off the bonnet as well, when you are underway the loose snow will blow up on your windscreen reducing your visibility again. Also remove snow and ice from your wipers, and make sure the joints aren't frozen so the blade stays in contact with the glass when the wipers are turned on4. De-icing washer fluid may make it easier to clean the windscreen, but make sure you clean snow and ice away from the jets so the fluid will spray.
Most ice scrapers have a plastic blade with ridges on one side which can supposedly make breaking up ice easier. While these are sufficient for most purposes, the blades are easily chipped by sliding around on the floorboard or in the boot when not in use, and sometimes on ice when in use, making it harder to clean the windows when you have to use them. Better but harder to find (and not much more expensive) are varieties with a metal blade that last longer and do a better job on ice. Others have long handles making it possible to clean the entire windscreen from one side of the vehicle instead of having to walk around, or enabling one to reach the middle of the windscreen of a taller vehicle like a truck, van or a 4x45. Some of the long-handled scrapers have a brush along the handle that makes it easier to remove excess snow from parts of a vehicle you wouldn't want to put a blade to.
You should drive slower in wintry conditions, but it can be equally dangerous to drive too slowly. On a major thoroughfare that has been cleared of snow where most traffic is moving safely at 40mph, it isn't necessary to drive at 20mph. If hazardous conditions make you nervous resulting in a significant slow down, perhaps it would be better to wait for the roads to clear or ask someone else to drive you. Depending on severity of conditions, driving at the speed limit or faster can result in hydroplaning6. Driving too slowly, on the other hand, forces other drivers to brake and have to manoeuvre around you - increasing the risk of other vehicles colliding with you or causing other drivers to have an accident.
Don't make any sudden moves, abrupt lane changes or turns, quick starts or stops. Doing so can cause your tyres to spin or your car to skid. If you should go into a skid from accelerating too fast or braking too hard, release the accelerator and do not use the brake but steer into the skid. When you have regained control, you can use the pedals again. If you drive a vehicle with a manual transmission, you may want to try starting in second gear instead of first, this will keep you from starting too fast. Some vehicles with automatic transmissions have a built-in sensor that starts you in a higher gear for the same reason. One Researcher has a winter ritual for driving in the snow: When the first snowfall of the season hits, she always drives to a deserted parking lot where she has plenty of room to manoeuvre, then intentionally puts the car into a skid repeatedly, so that she can practice 'steering into the skid' until it becomes an automatic response.
If the temperatures are near or below the freezing mark beware of black ice as well. Black ice occurs on blacktopped or darkly surfaced roads when water freezes but remains clear (instead of becoming frosted). The frozen patches are indistinguishable from merely wet patches, making it impossible to tell what is ice and what isn't.
Use caution when approaching turns or bends in the roads, also when cresting hills as you won't know what you'll find on the other side. Bridges and overpasses freeze first because they do not have the protection of the ground beneath them and are primarily constructed of metal. They also take the longest to thaw out, so even if normal road conditions are clear slow down when coming up on bridges and overpasses. Another Researcher's experience:
One thing I found out (much to my surprise) is that it was entirely possible to go into a skid between ten and 15 miles per hour if you just happen to hit an icy curve, so I've decided that I don't think it's really possible to drive too slowly on icy roads.
When snow first starts to fall on dry roads, conditions can be very slick because the moisture in the snow loosens the oil and dirt from the roadway. You should also be more cautious when walking on paved surfaces at this time. When the temperature drops in the overnight hours, many places that were merely wet or slushy during the day can freeze hard.
You should exercise additional caution during and after a hailstorm as well. Though hail is frozen, it is not frozen to the road and will slide with you, perpetuating your slide.
Braking and ABS
Give yourself plenty of time to slow down and stop. If your car doesn't have an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) then you should pump the brakes when slowing down by applying easy pressure, letting up, and reapplying easy pressure (rally drivers call this 'cadence braking'). This keeps the wheels from locking up and causing you to slide or skid. If your vehicle does have ABS, the pumping action is done for you - this is the vibration you feel in the pedal when the anti-lock system engages. You should apply easy, even pressure to the brake pedal and let the automatic system do the rest.
Most vehicles are equipped with all-weather tyres, rated for acceptable performance on all road surfaces. Snow tyres will have a more aggressive tread pattern for better traction in snowy conditions. Do not decrease the air pressure in your tyres! Not only does this achieve nothing positive, it could be quite dangerous. Deflating your tyres will increase the tyre's contact with the driving surface (which will not improve your traction), but does so at the cost of manoeuvrability which could prove detrimental.
In snowier areas and mountainous regions studded snow tyres or chains may be advisable or even required. Chains are ladder-patterned links with studs that fit over your vehicle's tyres to provide added traction. Studded snow tyres have the tread pattern of normal snow tyres with small metal spikes protruding from the tread. Keep in mind, however, that no safety precautions make you invincible and you must still exercise caution, even more so in these areas. Also bear in mind that while chains or studded tyres may be required in some areas, they are also outlawed in others as they are very damaging to road surfaces. So if you're in doubt it's best to check the local regulations.
Driving Different Types of Vehicles
Rear-wheel drive (RWD) is when the driving force is applied only to the wheels at the rear of the car. RWD vehicles usually include sports cars, vans, trucks and older cars. These vehicles are at a disadvantage in winter conditions because the bulk of the weight in a vehicle is the engine, meaning the rear of the vehicle is less secure on the road and more prone to slide. It is best to keep some kind of weight in the back of your vehicle, such as sand weights made specifically for this purpose or other heavy items like cinder blocks. Having a full tank of petrol will make a difference as well, as the tank is usually situated between the rear wheels. Although it doesn't provide a great amount of excess weight it might also be prudent to keep a bag of cat litter or road salt in the back, if you become stuck you can use the contents to provide some traction.
Front-wheel drive (FWD) is infinitely better in bad conditions because the driving force is applied to the front wheels where the weight is, improving your manoeuvrability and stopping ability. This doesn't mean you will never lose control of a front-wheel drive car, it means your chances of losing control are significantly less if you are driving responsibly.
Four-wheel Drive or All-wheel Drive
The first thing to know about these vehicles is that they do not make you invincible. The false sense of security these vehicles provide lead to a disproportionate number of them being found in ditches when the roads start to ice over. But they do provide better manoeuvrability, because when all four wheels receive power, they provide better traction and are less likely to slide. And as all wheels are driven, the main driving force (as with FWD vehicles) is in the front where the bulk of the weight is. Also, as four wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles are usually (but not always) trucks and SUVs, they will be of heavier construction all around, and larger vehicles provide more protection in the event of a crash.
What To Do When You're Stuck
It's almost inevitable - it's possible to get stuck even in the slightest of winter conditions. How to get out of it, or what to do if you can't, will depend on where you are.
It is common to be stuck in a driveway or parking lot where snow can pack around tyres. If your tyres are spinning as your vehicle remains stubbornly in the same place, continuing to press the accelerator will not dislodge you. As the tyre spins the friction will melt the ice immediately around it. The water will then refreeze - creating a deeper and deeper hole that your tyre is stuck in. There are a couple of ways to get out of this.
If you are at home or have lots of space in the boot to carry supplies you can grit behind your tyres with cat or clay litter, salt or ice melt to give your tyres something to gain traction with. You can also use a shovel to dig snow and ice away from your tyres7. If these are not options, it may be possible to rock your car out of a stuck spot. This is done by changing gears quickly from drive to reverse and back again while applying light pressure to the accelerator each time you switch. Eventually the momentum of going back and forth may be enough to pull out of the slick spot.
In the event that you have lost control of your vehicle and are stuck off the side of the road, the chances are good that nothing short of a recovery truck will get you out. Leave your lights on, turn on your hazard lights, or use the flares to make you visible to other drivers. Don't leave your car unless it is a short distance to services and you are adequately prepared for the walk. You will also want to leave your vehicle if it is stuck somewhere there is rising water, but otherwise stay put. Emergency crews are aware that these things happen, and are on the lookout for stranded motorists.
Other Vehicles and Drivers
Even in the best of conditions, nearly every driver thinks that nearly all other drivers are complete nimrods that got their driving licenses from Cracker Jack boxes. This bears keeping in mind when conditions are less than ideal because you simply never know what the other driver is going to do. You might also consider that most other drivers that slight you on the road have not done so intentionally, and grant a little leeway before being overly critical of other drivers' methods. Road rage and winter conditions make a deadly combination.
Lorries and buses will require even more time to slow down and stop, so it's generally not a good idea to get in front of them without leaving a good amount of room behind you.
Other drivers may also not have taken care to clean their vehicles off as well as they should have, or in the case of ice may not have been able to. As a car warms up while it's going down the road it's possible for the wind resistance to lift large sheets of snow or ice from the bonnet or top of a car and send it flying through the air. Even if roads are clear give yourself plenty of room when following other vehicles to avoid these sudden hazards.
Winter can be a very pretty time of year. Snowfall inevitably leads to the building of snowmen or, for the more creatively inclined, snow sculptures. These can be quite intricate and fascinating to look at. Please pull over and stop your car to admire the view. While especially treacherous, ice storms can be exceptionally beautiful as well. Do not attempt to drive and wonder at the view at the same time. Passengers should also refrain from saying things like, 'Ooh! Lookie there!'
Above all else, if you don't have to go anywhere it's usually best not to. Go outside and build a snowman instead, then enjoy a nice mug of hot chocolate.