Winter driving tips

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Every year, there are over 5.8 million vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways. About 1.24 million of those crashes are due to weather, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Holidays can make roadways even more deadly: between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in 2019, there were more than 1,250 fatalities.

Simple tips like staying alert, slowing down and leaving extra space between vehicles are all ways to help you and your family stay safe during extreme winter weather. Before you hit the road this winter, this is what you need to know.

In this article:

Cold weather driving facts

The FHWA considers a weather-related crash as occurring during adverse weather like rain, snow, fog, sleet and icy or slick pavements. It’s a common part of life for 47 million Americans who live in areas affected by extreme weather.

The Federal Highway Administration provides the following statistics:

  • About 17% of all car accidents happen during snowy conditions. (FHWA)
  • A total of 156,164 auto crashes occur every year from icy pavement. (FHWA)
  • More than 1,800 fatalities occur each year from snow and ice. (FHWA)
  • It takes 10 times longer to stop on snowy roads. (AAA)
  • About 70% of U.S. roads are in areas affected by snow, significantly increasing the chances of a weather-related accident. (FHWA)

Prepare before you go

These are some things you can do to prepare before you hit the road.

  1. Learn how to use traction control. Check your vehicle’s manual to learn how traction control works best for your car. If your tires are spinning, use kitty litter on the surrounding pavement to help with traction control.
  2. Check the forecast. Weather patterns can change quickly and sometimes without notice, so check the forecast to know if you need to detour around any incoming storms.
  3. Expect delays. Snow, flooding, and wind-blown debris can create lane obstructions and road closures. Build extra time into your itinerary to account for any weather- or traffic-related delays that you may experience on your journey.
  4. Map out an extra route. Take the time to map out a few alternate routes in advance, so you know exactly where to go should weather compromise your usual route.
  5. Avoid bridges and overpasses. When mapping out your route, try to avoid bridges and overpasses, as these surfaces can collect more water and freeze much faster.
  6. Drive sober. Drunk driving significantly increases your chances of an accident, so watch out for drunk drivers on the road who may drive erratically and threaten your safety.
  7. Plan ahead. If you think you might drink, plan for an alternate ride home, whether it’s with a loved one or through a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft.
  8. Pack phone accessories. Add a vehicle or mobile phone charger to keep your phone charged while you are on the road.
  9. Check the rules of the road. Driving laws may vary slightly between locales, so check to see if any local laws may affect your trip.
  10. Brush up on winter driving skills. Check your vehicle’s manual for any extra tips you can use to help your vehicle better manage inclement weather.

Tips for driving in snow and on ice

Snow is responsible for an average of 219,942 crashes, while ice causes more than 156,000 crashes. With such a high risk of an incident on the road, drivers can follow these tips for driving in snow or ice.

  1. Reduce speed. The FHWA recommends an overall speed reduction of 10% to 25% for wet pavement and up to 40% for snowy or slushy pavements to maintain safe driving conditions.

Recommended Reduction in Speed Based on Weather (FHWA)

Weather condition Decrease in average speed Decrease in free-flow speed Decrease in volume Decrease in road capacity
Light Rain/Snow 3% – 13% 2% – 13% 5% – 10% 4% – 11%
Heavy Rain 3% – 16% 6% – 17% 14% 10% – 30%
Heavy Snow 5% – 40% 5% – 64% 30% – 44% 12% – 27%
Low Visibility 10% – 12% 12%
  1. Practice defensive driving. Give extra distance between cars, and allow cars to merge in front of you to avoid any risks of distracted driving or road rage.
  2. Avoid phone use. Handheld cell phone use is against the law in many jurisdictions and can also increase your chances of an accident on the road, so avoid texting behind the wheel.
  3. Remain alert. Stay aware of the other cars on the road, and remain at a safe distance.
  4. Take breaks. Build some time into your itinerary for breaks during your trip to avoid drowsy driving and allow plows a chance to recondition the roads.
  5. Slow when driving through intersections. When stopped at a red light, wait for an extra beat before pulling out.
  6. Watch out for black ice. Black ice is near invisible on a road’s surface so remember to drive slowly.
  7. Avoid snow plows. Be sure to give these trucks a wide berth, as they are likely to drive slowly, make wide turns and drive between lanes.
  8. Carry an emergency kit. In addition to your phone accessories, be sure to pack useful items like a flashlight, ice scraper, jumper cables, snow shovel or broom, flares, warm blankets, water, non-perishable foods and abrasive material like sand, kitty litter or salt.
  9. Keep a full tank. Be prepared for delays by ensuring you have a full tank to keep you safe and warm if you encounter traffic or trouble.
  10. Secure children and passengers. All kids 13 and under should be secured in the backseat with proper car seats and booster seats for younger children.
  11. Be careful about running your car. There is a risk of asphyxiation from running cars, which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Avoid running your car for extended periods, and always avoid running your car in an enclosed space.
  12. Be safe when stopped. If you end up having to stop, remain with your car until help arrives, and use your emergency markers or flares. If you need to leave your car running, be sure to clear any snow that may be blocking the exhaust pipe.

Vehicle safety

Your car requires regular maintenance and service to keep it running at top performance. If your area is prone to snow and ice, salt and other castoffs from the snow plows can wreak havoc on your car.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers a free recall look-up tool to check whether any critical safety issues are reported for your vehicle. If there are manufacturer recalls, you could have your car repaired for free.

Additionally, there are some items to check and maintain to protect you better while on the road.

  • Lights: Be sure to check all of your vehicle’s different lights, such as brake lights, headlights, turn signals, hazards and all interior lights.
  • Battery: Your battery can easily be affected by cold temperatures, and even electric and hybrid vehicles can be affected by a lower driving range.
  • Coolant: Check your manufacturer’s vehicle manual to see what kind of coolant is best for your vehicle.
  • Windshield wipers and fluid: Ensure your wipers and defroster are in proper working order for optimal visibility.
  • Floor mats: Retention clips can help keep floor mats slipping when your shoes track water and snow into the car.
  • Scrapers: If you are in an area with snow or ice, it’s a good idea to keep an ice scraper handy in your vehicle.

Additional vehicle-specific items should also be checked regularly, such as antilock brakes or electronic stability control systems.

Tire safety

The NHTSA reports that an incredible 90% of all motor vehicle crashes are caused by tire failure.

There are a few things to keep in mind when maintaining tire safety for your vehicle.

  • Check tire pressure. Check your owner’s manual to see what inflation pressure is best recommended for your car, and then wait until the tires are cold before checking the pressure, which is about three hours since last use.
  • Check your spare tire. Inspect your spare tire to make sure it’s good to go in case you get a flat tire while on the road.
  • Inspect tires for damages. Tires should be inspected at least once a month to ensure no punctures, bulges or cracks can impact performance.
  • Measure the tread. The ideal tread for your wires should be a minimum of 2/32 of an inch or greater.
  • Check your tire’s age. An easy way to know if you need new tires is to check the date; tire manufacturers typically recommend changing your tires every six years.
  • Add snow tires: If you are traveling to a snowy area, consider snow tires to better grip the road and handle the snow and ice.

Winter weather can make the roads a treacherous place if you are not careful. An essential part of defensive driving during winter weather is the preparation beforehand. With some careful preparation, you can better prepare your vehicle for the winter weather ahead so you and your family can enjoy the better parts of the winter season.

Written by
Lena Borrelli
Insurance Contributor
Lena Muhtadi Borrelli has several years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as allconnect, Healthline and Reviews.com. She previously worked for Morgan Stanley.