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5 commandments of winter driving

By Claes Bell · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Posted: 6 am ET

I'm going to be traveling up to the mountains of North Carolina soon to spend the holidays with family, and I've been feeling a little concerned about driving my car on the curvy mountain roads in what may be pretty icy weather.

Curvy roads can be especially dangerous in winter.

Curvy roads can be especially dangerous in winter (photo by Jenni Jones).

I think there are probably some people in the same boat as me, so I contacted Shelley Larrabee, driving instructor and owner of the Central Maine Driving Academy, figuring she'd have some wisdom to share on the subject.

After all, aside from friendly people, endearing accents and one of my favorite writers, Stephen King, Maine also features an average snowfall of between 60 and 90 inches a year and recorded temperatures of as low as 50 degrees below zero, so Larrabee is no stranger to winter driving. Here are some of her top tips:

1. Thou shalt not make sudden moves. Turning the wheel suddenly or slamming on the brakes can cause your tires to lose traction on snow and ice, says Larrabee.

"When they first hit winter, people take these sudden stops and turns. They think they can take it just as sharp as in the summer, where their tires actually grab the tar," she says. "In the winter, you have this ice or this slush under your tires and you tend to slide."

Instead, gradual turns, braking, and using engine braking instead of your brakes can help keep your wheels from spinning or your car from going into a slide that could end in a collision.

2. Thou shalt slow down. Keeping a slow and steady speed makes it more likely you can obey the first commandment, because if you're speeding, you may find yourself having to slam on the brakes or take a turn sharply to avoid an accident. That's why Larrabee says drivers should plan ahead for more travel time in Winter weather, so they won't be tempted to lead-foot their way to a nasty accident.

One exception is when heading up a steep hill. Keeping your momentum is key to climbing a hill without sliding backward, says Larrabee. Just be sure not to overdo it and accidently drive down the other side, she says.

3. Thou shalt not get cocky about thy vehicle. The actions of the driver have more to do with your level of safety in winter driving than what type of vehicle you're in, says Larrabee.

In other words, just because you drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle or truck doesn't mean you're immune to losing control in icy conditions if you drive too fast.

"When you lose traction, it doesn't matter what you've got for a vehicle. In fact, the heavier, bigger vehicles, once they get going don't stop as well, and they slide longer," Larrabee says.

4. Thou shalt be prepared. Preparing your car for winter driving is key, says Larrabee. She recommends topping off all your fluids, checking out and replacing your windshield wipers if necessary and checking up on your tires to be sure there's enough tread to give you good traction. Also, a few simple, inexpensive supplies, such as extra warm clothes, a small shovel and a bucket of salt, could be a lifesaver if your car gets stuck, says Larrabee.

5. Thou shalt keep thy distance. Because sudden braking or lane changes in icy weather are a no-no, Larrabee recommends a longer following distance to give you more time to gradually come to a stop. She recommends at least 5 seconds worth of following distance from the car in front of you.

Also, try not to drive right next to another car on the highway, she says, because if your car starts to slide and goes sideways, the person driving next to you may not notice and could accidentally hit you.

What do you think? Any other winter driving tips you'd like to share? Either way, have a safe and happy holiday!

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3 Comments
Claes Bell
February 09, 2011 at 11:47 am

Thanks for the additional pointers ... Your point about the direction your car is pointed is spot on. Sometimes you can't control a little fishtail, but being hamhanded on the wheel to try and get your car pointed in the exact right direction is a good way to end up in a ditch, I think. Also, driving up in the North Carolina mountains, what amazed me was how liberal a lot of people were with the gas when trying to drive on roads that were really icy and dangerous.

TOP
February 09, 2011 at 11:39 am

Well that is a nice starter list. Here are some more from 42 years of snow driving:

6) Thou shalt practice stopping, starting, turning and avoidance in a quiet open parking lot as soon as you enter snow country.
7) Thoushalt be aware that it is far more important to your safety that you control the direction your vehicle is headed than controlling the direction it is pointed.
8) Thou shalt practice full ABS activation on a slick surface to become used to the longer stopping distances that ABS can cause on such surfaces.
9) Thou shalt not apply more gas to get the car going on ice and snow. Drive like there is a raw egg on the gas pedal and you will have more traction.
10) Though shalt not overdrive thy visibility, headlights or brakes. Thou shalt clean thy windows thoroughly and keep them clean. Thou shalt not act like thou hast X-ray vision and can see through snowbanks on driveways and intersections. Thou shalt consider every snow bank in town to have a kid tunneling through it.

11) There will be lots of idiots out there who haven't read any of this and will be running stop signs, stop lights, spinning out, getting stuck etc.
12) Wind CAN blow you off the road when it is icy.
13) Trucks are bigger than you and can crush you.
14) Deer move during the day in heavy snow looking for food. It is a lot easier to walk in the road than in deep snow.

Dane
December 22, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I would add, be extra watchful for people not following these commandments!