Growing up in Quebec, we learned early on that driving in heavy snow was no joke: it’s a dangerous task that could get you into a severe accident, or worse, killed. In fact, our neighbors south of the border reported that more than 1,300 people are killed per year by auto accidents caused by snowy or icy roads.
Of course, that could just be because Americans are bad drivers, but it’s more likely because snow driving isn’t something a lot of people think is serious.
But trust me, the first time you start to feel your wheels slip on ice will also be the first time you feel your heart in your throat: it’s a harrowing experience that you honestly don’t want happening again. Luckily, safe winter driving doesn’t have to involve becoming a professional driver. In fact, a lot of the safe winter driving techniques you need to survive Canada’s harsh winters are usually taught in Driver’s Ed. You know, that class you weren’t paying much attention to.
One core value you get from that class is being a defensive driver, especially during winter. Defensive driving is all about being alert, being present, planning ahead, and above all, being safe and non-aggressive. Oh and, of course, always practicing common sense like wearing your seatbelt and putting your phone away while driving.
Beyond that, there are several other things you can practice to maximize your safety during winter conditions. Here are a few tips on safe driving during snowy conditions:
Slow Down and Give Yourself Space
Probably one of the most practical things I learned about defensive driving during winter, you need to slow down and give yourself space. That way, on the off chance that you do lose control of your vehicle, you’ll have more time to recover and regain control.
This helps especially if you’re going down a highway with other cars in your vicinity: by slowing down and giving ample space between you and the next car, you logically give yourself more time to regain control or, barring that, think of a way to reduce the damage of the accident. It also helps if you’re going on a sharp turn and your wheels lock: having that few extra split-seconds can be the difference between life and death.
Preventing Vehicle Maintenance is Doubly Important During Winter
Preventive maintenance, whether it’s an industrial machine or your beat up Ford Edge, is still the best way to greatly reduce the risk of things breaking down. During winter time, car owners need to be more vigilant as the cold weather can do a lot of bad things to a car, not the least of which is sapping your battery.
Cold weather is anathema to batteries because it reduces their efficacy, so you need to make sure that it’s always charged and running, even if it’s a mild winter day. You’ll also need to make sure that your car’s various fluids and oils are topped up and far from the red line, this includes brake fluid, as you will be stepping on the brakes more often than usual.
Your tire pressure also has to be checked at least twice a week. When temperatures drop below 0 Celsius, air pressure starts to drop, and this is true for the inside of your tires as well. Soft tires can and will lead to spinouts and wrecks, so make sure your tires are the right pressure at all times. And, of course, don’t forget to have the right set of winter tires.
Defensive Driving is Driving at Safe Speeds, Not Slow Speeds
When people think ‘defensive driving’, they often think that it entails driving at a snail’s pace, and while speeding down the highway under icy conditions is terrible, driving below a certain speed can also be dangerous, both for you and other drivers.
In most highways in Canada, the minimum speed limit is 60 km/h. Driving below this can increase the chances of you getting rear-ended by drivers who are following the limit. Driving below a certain speed can also be very dangerous when you’re rounding blind curves, as you might not have the speed to complete the turn.
Hope for the Best, but be Prepared for a Worst Case Scenario
Spinning out on an icy road is a nightmare, but luckily, you can steer your way out of trouble, you just have to be present and push down your instinct to panic. During a slide, look for an escape route –usually the shoulder of the road –and steer towards it. Try to focus on where you need to go rather than avoiding obstacles, as the latter will make you steer the wheel from one direction to another too many times.
Of course, avoiding a spin or a slide are still best, so be conscious about icy roads and watch out for those dark, slippery tracks of packed snow on roads as these are the ones that have the most ice. If you can, drive over fresh, white snow, as these are usually not as packed and offer more traction.
Prepare for a Worst Case Scenario, Continued
Icy roads increase the chances of accidents and breakdowns. This might be a minor inconvenience if it’s a mild, winter day. But if you live further up north like Manitoba or Newfoundland, breaking down in the middle of nowhere during the height of a bad winter storm can mean life or death.
During winter time, always stock your car with a thick jacket, thermal blankets, and warm gloves just in case you have to get out of your car in the snow. High visibility items like reflectors are also encouraged, as these help other cars avoid you while you fix whatever is broken (and can be used to signal for help if your car is completely kaput).
You’ll also need an ice scraper and basic car repair tools and supplies: wrenches, jacks, jumper cables, snow chains, and kitty litter. That’s right, kitty litter can be used to create traction on packed snow and can help get your vehicle unstuck.
So there you have it, some basic tips on how to drive safely during winter time. Are there other tips you want to share with us? Sound off in the comments below!