Driving in Bad Weather
Driving on Snow and Ice

Driving in Snow & Ice: Winter Safety Rules, Chains & Choosing The Speed

Updated Aug. 26, 2019

Driving when there is snow or ice on the roads is extremely treacherous. Winter storms and heavy snowfall can leave drivers stranded in freezing conditions for hours before help can arrive. Traveling when there is snow or ice on the roads is never advisable but sometimes there is no way to avoid it. If you must drive your car following a snow storm or when it is still snowing, be sure to clear your vehicle of all ice and snow before setting off.

Ice is generally more dangerous than snow, as it is very difficult to see. When water on the roadway freezes it becomes “black ice”. Patches of black ice can take drivers by surprise, as they are easily hidden in the shadows cast by trees, buildings and other vehicles parked by the roadside.

One of the main challenges that drivers face while driving in the snow is that lane markings may be partially or completely covered. With no road markings to orient them, drivers will often stray toward the center of the road and pass vehicles traveling in the opposite direction too closely.

Snow or ice between your tires and the surface of the road will greatly reduce traction, thus increasing the distance it takes to stop by around six seconds – depending on your speed. It is important to note that your tires will have better traction on a slippery surface when the front wheels are turning. Braking may seem like the obvious answer when you run into trouble on snow or ice, though steering your way out of danger to keep tires rolling and increase traction is likely to be far more effective.

Clearing ice & snow from the vehicle

You must clear ALL snow and ice from your car before driving. Snow and ice can easily be dislodged when a vehicle is moving, and may strike pedestrians or other motorists, causing injury or property damage. Snow remaining on the roof of your vehicle could also fall onto your windscreen and obscure your view of the road, causing an accident.

Motorists in many states face severe fines if snow or ice falls from their vehicle and causes injury or death to other road users or pedestrians. In Pennsylvania, the fines range from $200 to $1000 per offense, depending on the severity of the injuries caused. New Jersey law states that a motorist may be fined up to $75 if they are caught driving having not cleared their vehicle of snow or ice, even if it is not dislodged. If it is dislodged and causes injury, fines could reach $1500.

Be sure to check your state’s driving manual to find out what fines and penalties may be incurred, should you fail to clear your vehicle of ice and snow.

Spotting slippery roads

Most drivers expect the street to be slippery when snow is visible on the ground. When ice has accumulated without snow, you may not realize the road is slippery until it is too late. These tips will help you avoid icy patches on the roadway:

  • Even if it does not feel cold enough for ice to have formed on the road, keep in mind that the temperature is likely to be several degrees lower in the shade of buildings and trees. If the day is cold and wet, ice may have accumulated in these shadowy spots. Pass through at a reduced speed, with additional care.
  • Bridges and overpasses can also hide patches of ice. Water tends to freeze in these places faster than it would on the rest of the road.
  • Keep in mind that “colder” does not necessarily mean “more slippery”. Roads are likely to be more slippery when the temperature is at or slightly above freezing, than they would be at lower temperatures.

Driving in snowy or icy conditions: safety tips

If you frequently drive in snowy areas it would be wise to carry chains in your trunk, should your vehicle become stuck. Make sure that you know how to fit the chains before the time comes that you need to use them! The safety tips included below will help you stay safe when driving in snowy or icy conditions. Remember to allow yourself more time to complete your journey and to pack emergency provisions, just in case you get stuck.

When it is snowing your visibility will be greatly reduced. You may not be able to see other road users, the road ahead, hazards and road markings as clearly. Therefore, you must:

  1. Keep your windows and windshield clean to maximize visibility.
  2. Turn on your low-beam headlights – even during the day. Do not be tempted to use your high-beams as this will decrease visibility by creating glare.
  3. Reduce your speed and increase your following distance. Poor visibility will leave you with less time to react.

These tips will help you to maintain control of your vehicle when snow or ice are making the roadway slippery:

  1. Reduce speed and increase following distance.
  2. When driving on ice, slow your vehicle to a crawl.
  3. Slow down even further when you approach curves and intersections. Avoid turning and stopping quickly.
  4. Use all-weather radial tires, snow tires or chains. Even with this equipment your vehicle may slide on snow or ice. Attempting to drive in these conditions without it would be a mistake.
  5. Avoid changing direction or speed suddenly, as this will likely cause your vehicle to skid.

Choosing a safe speed

While there is no such thing as an ideal or totally safe speed at which to travel on snow and ice, slower is usually better. Conditions are likely to be different from one stretch of road to the next, depending on sun, shade, exposure, how busy the street is and whether the road has been salted. All you can do is stay alert and keep your eyes on the road ahead, looking for tell-tale signs of danger. Remember that “blacktop” or asphalt roads are prime territory for hidden black ice.

Braking on snow and ice

When braking on ice, snow or other slippery surfaces, you must not brake to the point where the wheels lock. This will likely send your vehicle into a skid. Instead, apply the brakes gently and gradually until you can feel the tires begin to grip the road. If the wheels lock when applying the brakes, ease off the pedal until you can feel them loosen, then reapply gently. Repeat this process until your vehicle has reached the desired speed or come to a complete stop.

Maintenance vehicles and emergency responders

You may encounter maintenance vehicles and equipment conducting work on the road in snowy or icy conditions. Look out for their flashing yellow and blue warning lights, taking care to yield the right-of-way. Use extra caution on your approach.

When you see an emergency response vehicle such as a rescue truck, ambulance or police cruiser giving assistance to somebody who is stuck in the snow or has been injured, reduce your speed and move away to another lane, if possible.

Snow plows

Use caution when driving near active snow plows, as their drivers must deal with very limited rear and side visibility. Keep in mind that slow plows must turn around frequently and their drivers may not see you behind them. Always maintain a much greater following distance with a snow plow than you would with other, smaller vehicles. Get too close and the salt, de-icing fluids and anti-skid pellets distributed by the snow plow could damage your vehicle.

Snow plows often have wing plows that protrude from the vehicle on either side. Falling snow and night-time driving may prevent other road users from spotting wing plows, increasing the risk of side-swipe collisions should they try and pass too closely. Stay safe and do not attempt to pass a plow on either side.

In a snow storm, snow plows can become practically invisible, as their speed and size create large clouds of snow which can blow around the vehicle and conceal it. Always be on the lookout for snow plows and keep your speed to a minimum.

Preparing to drive in extreme cold weather

Your vehicle will need to be in excellent condition and winter-ready to cope with driving in extreme, cold weather.

  1. 1

    Be sure to add anti-freeze to the water in your radiator before traveling in extremely cold weather. Otherwise, the water in the radiator may freeze and your vehicle’sengine will overheat. Watch the temperature gauge for signs of overheating when you start the engine.

  2. 2

    Fog and moisture build-up on the inside of your windows and windscreen will cause poor visibility in very cold conditions. You can combat this by using the defroster or keeping one or two windows lightly open to allow moisture to escape.

  3. 3

    When temperatures drop substantially below zero, the gas in your fuel lines and tank could freeze. Making sure your tank is always at least half full should minimize the risk of this happening.

  4. 4

    Make sure all your lights are fully-functional and clean before setting off on your journey. Grime on headlights can reduce their effectiveness by as much as 90 percent.

  5. 5

    Starting your car in extremely cold weather demands a fully-charged battery. Get your battery checked out and replaced if necessary.

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