Winter Driving: Staying Safe on the Road
Driving during the winter months can be hazardous, even for those who have experience getting around in the ice and snow. Whether you're heading to the corner store for bread and milk or planning a road trip to see family, you need to be prepared for anything. Drivers who were headed down Interstate 95 likely didn't expect to spend more than 24 hours trapped in their cars, but an early January 2022 blizzard snarled traffic in Virginia and left many motorists to spend the night on the highway in below freezing conditions. While none of us can predict what might happen on the road, these winter driving tips can help keep you and your loved ones safe when you do head out.
Prepare Your Car for Winter Driving
The worst time to realize that the tread on your tires has worn down or your car's battery is past its prime is when you're driving in winter weather. Before the weather hits, take your car to the mechanic to make sure your car is ready for the season. In addition to checking your tires (including the spare tire) and battery, they should make sure of the following:
- Your headlights, brake lights, emergency flashers, and all other lights are working
- Your window defroster works
- Your wiper blades should have limited wear (or be replaced with winter wiper blades if expect to be driving in snow) and the fluid reservoir is filled with winter wiper fluid that won't freeze
- Your car's cooling system is tested and contains enough coolant
You may want to replace your floormats with thicker ones made for wintery weather; these are often made of durable rubber that can better handle the mess of snow, slush, and ice, and prevent the melted water and debris from spreading inside your car. Make sure that any new mats fit your car correctly and are installed properly so they don't hinder your gas or brake pedal.
If you travel with small children in the car, now is a good time to check your child seat. Bulky coats can prevent a car seat's harness from fitting correctly. It's safer to dress your child in thinner layers, and place a blanket on your child over the car seat rather than trying to fit bulky layers inside.
Carry Essentials with You
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends carrying the following in your car during winter months:
- An ice scraper and snow shovel
- Kitty litter, sand, or other abrasive material – can be used for traction if you're stuck, and provides extra weight in the back-end for lighter cars
- Jumper cables or a jump starter device
- A flashlight and warning devices, like flares or emergency markers
- Your cell phone and a charger
- A supply of food, water, and all essential medicines
This might seem excessive if you're just planning to drive down the street to pick up groceries, but if you expect to travel far enough from home that you couldn't get back easily on foot, it's better to be prepared. In 2014, a major winter storm hit North Carolina, stranding kids at school and adults at work. What was normally a short commute was suddenly an hours-long ordeal, with people abandoning their cars on the road to walk home – or to the nearest hotel. While an ice scraper and a bag of kitty litter might not have gotten those commuters home any more quickly, a charged cell phone, blankets, and emergency rations can help make the situation safer and a little easier to handle – particularly because it's safer to stay in your car in this type of situation.
Don't forget to fill up the gas tank, too, and keep it full. Experts recommend that you keep your tank at least half full during winter months to help protect your fuel lines from freezing. Your car's engine is also less efficient in the cold weather, with a fuel economy loss of 10% to 20% for conventional gasoline vehicles and 20% to 40% for hybrid cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy – and that loss is even higher on short drives.
Check the Weather and Road Conditions
Before you leave home, check your favorite weather site or television station to find out what the weather is going to be like and if any snow or ice are expected. Check to see if there's construction on the roads you plan to take, since bad weather can make those areas even more hazardous. Inclement weather can develop quickly, but knowing in advance if there's a chance of a storm can help you be prepared.
Once you're on the road, keep up-to-date with weather and road conditions. Tune into local radio stations that will provide you with news and weather updates. Download an app for your phone, such as Drive Smarter, that will provide you with real-time community alerts about accidents, dangerous road conditions, and other hazards specific to your location. For long road trips, you might also think about getting a car CB radio; professional drivers often use CBs to talk to each other about road conditions and hazards, and it can be a good way of contacting others in an emergency if your cell phone doesn't have power or is out of service range.
Let Someone Know Where You Are
Make sure that at least one person – and preferably several people – know where you're going, the route you plan to take, and when you expect to arrive at your destination. This is good advice any time of year, but it's especially important during winter months when a sudden snowstorm or poor road conditions can leave you stranded in freezing temperatures. Keep in touch with that contact person if your route changes or you are delayed for any reason. If you don't show up at your destination at the expected time, your contact person can reach out to you to check in and contact the authorities if you aren't responding. Few things are more frightening then sliding off the road into a snow drift and realizing that no one knows where you are.
You have several different options when it comes to keeping in touch with your contact, and make sure that whatever method you choose is safe. Driving while texting or trying to make a call is dangerous even in good weather, so make sure that you're using a hands-free device. You might also consider installing a tracking app on your cell phone; this allows designated people who also have the app to see your location, as long as your phone is turned on and the GPS is activated. Many phones have this feature already installed, so check your device for location sharing.
Safe Winter Driving Means Being Prepared
What do all of these winter driving tips have in common? It's all about being prepared. Make sure that your car is ready for the season, stock it with emergency supplies, research your route and expected weather conditions ahead of time, and make sure someone knows where you're going. When you're prepared for the unexpected, you can put yourself in the best position for a fun and successful trip.
- CNN.com: "I-95 in Virginia reopens after winter storm strands some drivers for more than 24 hours", accessed 1/31/2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/04/weather/winter-weather-tuesday/index.html
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "Winter Weather Driving Tips", accessed 1/31/2022, https://www.nhtsa.gov/winter-driving-tips
- WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham: "6 years ago: Winter storm shut down North Carolina and gave birth to some unforgettable memes", accessed 1/31/2022, https://abc11.com/snow-nc-feb-2014-in/5924354/
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation: "Prepare your vehicle for winter driving", accessed 2/3/2022, https://wisconsindot.gov/Pages/safety/education/winter-drv/vehicle.aspx
- U.S. Department of Energy: "Fuel Economy in Cold Weather", accessed 2/3/2022, https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/coldweather.shtml