Winter Driving – Best Practices

Most of the Inland Northwest is experiencing some kind of winter weather pattern this season; whether it be record precipitation of snow (on the high or low side!), steady rainfall, freezing temperatures, sudden blustery storms, or the most common occurrence: rather mild overcast days combining all of the above. In any case, many of us find the necessity of driving in these conditions inescapable. With many new-to-the-area residents who may not be so familiar with these weather conditions, we would like to offer some tips to keep you both safe and prepared on the roadways this winter! 

Before you start the engine

Is it a necessary trip? As recommended by AAA Exchange, stay home if your trip doesn’t warrant venturing out. Can it wait for milder conditions? Is it truly a need? Even if you’re confident in your driving skills and your vehicle’s ability to handle, you aren’t the only one on the road and risks are still present. Take a moment to evaluate the necessity of your trip. 

Keep a cold-weather stash. When you do need to venture out, be sure your vehicle is well stocked with items you will need and should be prepared with:

  • Ice scraper – even if it isn’t icy, temps drop quickly late in the day
  • Water bottle, pop-top canned good or satiating snack bar, OTC medicine and first aid kit
  • Flashlight and extra set of batteries
  • Blanket, extra coat and warm socks

Winterize. Preparing your car or truck for the colder months will boost reliability, handling, and extend the life of your vehicle as a result. Keep each of these in check: 

  • Half a tank of gas at all times – think tank half full! Treat the half-full gauge line as empty.
  • Well-inflated all-season or studded tires with at least 60+% tread
  • Wiper blades in good shape – consider switching to a winterized set
  • Rubber mats – trade out your carpet mats for a set of rubber mats- they come in handy for traction if you’re in too deep!

Plan ahead. Scan the road surface and identify what kind of conditions are present. Predict how slow you will need to travel based on conditions and decide how much extra time you may need to arrive. Check your weather app also for expected precipitation and temperature changes while you are out and plan accordingly. 

Out on the Road

Slow down and keep distance from other vehicles to account for reduced traction. Maintain about 6 seconds following time to allow for the greater time and distance it takes to stop in slippery conditions. Keep watchful of the vehicles ahead to predict any problems such as traction loss and slide-offs, terrain changes, or speed changes. 

Stay light on the pedal when accelerating and decelerating. Apply gas slowly and decrease slowly to avoid losing traction and causing skids which can lead to slide-offs and collisions. Look ahead for traffic light changes and give yourself time to slow to a stop and press the gas lightly when accelerating to avoid spinning tires. 

Know the brakes on your vehicle. Most cars have anti-lock brake systems (ABS) now but if not, know how your brakes handle and whether or not you need to pump them before you need a quick and safe stop. Keep your heel on the floor of the car and use the ball of your foot to steadily press the brakes gradually when needed. The less friction caused on slippery roads, the less opportunity to enter a slippery situation. Looking ahead  and slowing down may allow you to keep rolling until a light changes, using breaks less and reducing the risk of skidding through intersections. 

Now is not the time to cruise. Keep the cruise control off; road conditions can change quickly and slowing down over ice isn’t an automatic function when cruising. 

Take to the hills with caution.  Don’t speed up through a hill or stop which can likely result in skidding or plainly going nowhere fast. Get a little inertia going before you approach the hill to carry you along. As you near the top, start letting off the gas slowly to proceed at a safe speed for the terrain. 

Clear snow from key areas of your vehicle between trips for safer handling. Keep exhaust pipes clear of snow which can trap carbon monoxide in the cabin. Wheel wells should be cleared to prevent steering hinderances and keep the wiper blades free of ice. Keep them up off the windshield when parked if precipitation is heavy and through the night if your vehicle isn’t sheltered. 

In the event of a skid, steer in the same direction, but do it gradually and with a firm hand. Despite seeming counterintuitive, it can stop a skid short before you end up in a ditch or in the back of another car. At the same time, refrain from stomping the breaks. Overcorrection and braking a skid and result in a far worse outcome. Learning to handle a skid does take practice. Finding an empty, spacious parking lot to practice can go miles in aiding your response, no pun intended.