Safety on the Road: Prepare for Winter Weather

By MR. ROBERT WOODS, Staff Writer

Inevitably, the seasons change, and along with them, road and driving conditions. There are many things you can do to make it through the cold season without accident or incident. Some of them involve prepping your car. Some of them involve prepping yourself. Others involve how to deal with snow and ice while driving.

Here are a bunch of ideas to keep you, your vehicle, and your passengers safe this winter. You may have heard a few before, but several will probably be new to you. Look them over. You may be happy you did when the temperatures begin to drop and the snow piles up. Happy driving!

  • Ready your car: Check the battery. What percentage of power does it have left? Consider buying a new one before the temperatures drop suddenly, which might put your battery out of commission for good. If you are going to keep an ailing battery, make sure you have jumper cables with you and that you know how to use them, or sign up with AAA or find out if your insurance coverage has roadside assistance, and have the number handy.
  • Consider getting snow tires. Will you need them? Is the cost and inconvenience of storing tires justified by the increased traction and stability they will give you on a wintry road? Think about what the weather has been during past winters, or research it. Remember: with potential climate change comes even more unpredictable weather.
  • Take it for a snowy spin. When you are able, before you take your car out into heavy traffic during the winter, take it to an isolated parking lot or paved area that has snow. Drive around a bit. Get used to how your car reacts in these wintry conditions. How does it brake? How does it accelerate? How does it feel when the stability control or other safety features engage?
  • Be ready for that first winter drive. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 17 percent of all accidents occur in wintry conditions. Many of those accidents probably happen on the first day winter hits with force. Drivers may have forgotten how to drive in the snow and ice. Some will slide off the side of the road—or worse—when they overreact to a loss of traction and hit the brakes hard. One of the keys to safe winter driving is using the brakes sparingly and lightly. Hit them hard on a snowy or icy surface and you may lose control. When you see a stop sign or ramp ahead, start to slow down well in advance so you can distribute the deceleration over a larger area and gradually lower your speed. This can help you retain control.
  • Drive slow. Drive slow. Drive slow. Probably the most important thing you can do in snowy or even blizzard conditions is slow your speed. You may get there later than you want, but it is a lot more likely you will get there. You have more control of your car at slower speeds because you will give yourself more time to react to any problems that come up while driving. If you’re going 40 mph or less, or if visibility is bad, remember to turn your hazard lights on.
  • Follow the lines, and don’t crowd snowplows. It may be tempting to just follow the taillights of the car in front of you when visibility gets bad. But what happens when that car goes off the road? Instead, try to follow the painted road lines if you can to stay on track. If the middle line is obscured, look to the white painted line to your right. Give snowplows plenty of space; they make wide turns and turn and stop often.
  • Prepare for the worst by preparing an emergency kit. Stock your car with essentials, such as a nonperishable, high-energy food, such as chocolate or energy bars; water; a blanket and some extra winter clothes; medicine; a snow shovel; an ice scraper or deicer; jumper cables; a flare; and an extra power pack for your cell phone. Consider keeping an old-fashioned map in the kit, too, and know how to use it. Put this kit in your vehicle a couple weeks before you expect the weather to change. You do not want to be caught out in a freak winter storm unprepared.
  • If you are stuck in a whiteout, do not wander away from the car. People have died just a few steps from their vehicles because they left their vehicles in freezing conditions, couldn’t find their way back because of poor visibility, and suffered hypothermia. It may be tempting to go for help, but if you are on a main road, you are most likely better off waiting for emergency services to come to you. Being prepared for being stranded for a while will make that wait a lot easier on you and your passengers.
  • Conserve energy when stranded. If you get stuck, prepare to be there for a while. Do not run your car constantly in case it is a long wait. Start the car every half hour or so for a few minutes to run the heat and turn on the radio. Watch your cell phone battery. Conserve your own energy too. Break out that blanket and winter clothes.
  • Stay upbeat. Keeping a positive attitude in a stressful situation is not easy, but it can make things easier on both you and your passengers. Remember, although the situation may seem dire if you suddenly find yourself driving or even stranded in bad conditions, you will eventually get out. Storms pass. Cars get back on the road. Before you know it, you will be at your destination in a warm room, maybe sipping a cup of hot chocolate—and you will have quite a story to tell!