Getting where you want to go takes longer in winter, and for good reason. Ice, sleet and snow make it more difficult to speed up, turn, stop, get up hills and navigate among other drivers.
Your top winter driving questions
Take a little time to brush up on your driving skills. Marilyn Buskohl, director of administration at AAA South Dakota, answers common questions motorists have about driving on wet, slippery and icy terrain.
- What are the most dangerous conditions?
- How fast should I go on icy or snowy roads?
- How far back should I stay from the car in front of me?
- But I have all-wheel drive!
- Should I change lanes in icy weather?
- If I hit an icy patch, should I steer into it or use my brakes?
- How do I avoid my car sliding on ice?
- How do I stop my car once it starts sliding on ice?
- How do I get up a hill in icy conditions?
The roads are most dangerous when temperatures are within 10 degrees of freezing: 22 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit. With this type of weather, ice is melting and refreezing.
It depends on the road conditions and the driver, but AAA recommends driving about 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, maybe even slower, until you get a feel for the road. If it still feels dicey, slow down and proceed with caution. The car behind you can wait.
If you are the driver who is often irritated with the slow speed of other drivers during wintry weather conditions, consider that you might be driving too fast for the flow of traffic.
In normal driving conditions, follow three to four seconds behind the vehicle directly in front of you. On icy, slippery surfaces, double your following distance to eight to 10 seconds. When you break hard in slick conditions, you’ll need the longer distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.
We hear this one a lot. Sometimes, drivers become overconfident when they have a large vehicle or all-wheel drive. However, this doesn’t mean you have extra traction. If you hit a slippery patch, it’s just as hard to stop as if you had two-wheel drive.
On a road with multiple lanes, stay in the lane that has been cleared most recently. The potential for losing control of your vehicle increases when driving over ice and snow that is built up between the lanes.
To avoid a collision, you will need to think quickly, especially if you are traveling at speeds over 25 mph. In this case, steering is preferred to braking, because less distance is required to steer around an object than to brake to a stop.
Give yourself a lot of extra time to slow down for a stoplight. If you can avoid stopping, do so. For example, if you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it. When you’re taking off, apply the gas slowly to accelerate. It’s the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry.
Look where you want to go, and carefully steer in the direction you want the front of the car to go. Depending on how fast you are sliding on the ice, you should be prepared to turn the wheel continually until the front of the vehicle is traveling in a straight line. For cars without an anti-lock braking system (ABS), avoid using your brakes. If your car has ABS, brake firmly as you steer into the skid.
When it comes to hills, try to gain a little speed before you start up. Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just makes your wheels spin.
Be aware of black ice
You can’t see it. But you can anticipate it. Black ice is a nearly invisible layer of ice that blends in with the surface of the road. At night, your headlights reflect off the road, and that’s black ice. Black ice makes its home in places where the sun doesn’t hit: at intersections where water is draining and freezing, on bridges, or in the shadows of tall buildings.
Tips for driving in winter weather
- Always wear your seat belt.
- Drive only when you are alert. Stay off the roads if you’re tired.
- Be sure your tires are properly inflated.
- Use the same type of tire on all four wheels.
- Keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid gas line freeze-up.
- Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface.
- Watch weather reports prior to traveling long distances, or if you are driving in isolated areas. If bad weather is expected, delay your trip.
- If the meteorologist is telling you to stay home, do so. If you must leave, let others know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
Do you love the winter season? Or do you prefer to see 80 degree temperatures in the forecast? If you're more of a warm weather person and find yourself wishing the winter away, check out these ways to beat the winter blues.