Have you been injured? you may have a case.

How to Drive in the Snow – Winter Driving Safety Guide

Winter safety guide for driving in the snow

The Importance of Snow Driving Safety

Winter driving safety is a critical topic that often gets overlooked despite the significant risks associated with it. Each year, winter conditions contribute to many accidents, injuries, and fatalities on the roads. Understanding the statistics, causes, and costs associated with winter driving accidents can help us appreciate the importance of snow-driving safety. 

Number Of Winter Driving Accidents Each Year

Contrary to popular belief, accidents are less likely to occur in winter than in summer or on weekends. However, winter conditions present unique challenges that can lead to serious accidents. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), over 1,300 people are killed, and more than 116,800 people are injured annually in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy, or icy pavements. Furthermore, nearly 900 people are killed and approximately 76,000 injured in vehicle crashes during snowfall or sleet each year[1]. 

Common Causes Of Winter Driving Accidents

The common causes of these accidents include slippery roads, low visibility, and poor vehicle maintenance. When temperatures drop, roads can quickly become slick, creating difficulties for drivers. Low visibility due to snowfall or fog further exacerbates the problem. Additionally, poorly maintained vehicles are more susceptible to crashes in these conditions. 

Costs Of Winter Driving Accidents

The financial implications of winter driving accidents are also staggering. Every year since 1995, winter snowstorms have cost the country $1.2 billion and caused about 4% of all motor vehicle crashes in the US. The National Safety Council estimates that the cost of a fatal accident is approximately $1,778,000, while a disabling injury costs around $155,000. Even accidents resulting in property damage alone can cost up to $5,700. These statistics underscore the importance of snow driving safety. It’s crucial for drivers to be aware of the risks associated with winter driving and take necessary precautions. This includes maintaining their vehicles properly, adjusting their driving habits to suit the conditions, and being prepared for emergencies[2]. 

Find out how to prepare your vehicle before driving in the snow and how to safely navigate the wintery roads once you’re behind the wheel, check out this video where Aisha Hedwood of Wheel to Drive Driving School provides valuable tips for safe winter driving.

Snow Driving Preparations

As winter approaches, it’s crucial to prepare your vehicle for the harsh conditions that come with the season. Snow driving preparations are not just about ensuring a comfortable ride but also about guaranteeing safety on the road. Here are some essential tips for winterizing your vehicle, understanding the importance of snow tires and tire pressure, preparing an emergency kit, and maintaining your vehicle during the snowy season. 

Winter Vehicle Preparation: Tires, Fluids, and Maintenance

Preparing your vehicle for winter is essential to ensure safety and optimal performance during cold months. Here are key steps to consider:

  1. Winterization: Regularly used vehicles may not require extensive winterization, but checking essential components is crucial. Ensure your oil meets cold-weather specifications and that your coolant can withstand freezing temperatures.
  2. Wiper Fluid: Use windshield wiper fluid designed to resist freezing, and check that heaters, defrosters, and wipers are in good working condition. Consider switching to winter wiper blades and cold weather washer fluid for improved visibility in snowy conditions.
  3. Snow Tires and Tire Pressure: Snow tires provide better traction on icy surfaces, enhancing safety during winter. Maintain proper tire pressure, typically between 30 to 35 PSI for winter temperatures, to ensure tire longevity and prevent uneven wear.
  4. Vehicle Maintenance: Before winter arrives, make sure your vehicle’s reservoir contains high-quality “winter” fluid with de-icer. Check the functionality of defrosters and windshield wipers, replacing any worn blades. If you reside in a snowy region, consider installing heavy-duty winter wipers. Additionally, keep your gas tank full, maintain clear windows, and give snowplows ample space to work.

Emergency Kit Essentials.

An emergency kit is a must-have for any winter driver. This kit should include essentials such as a tow strap, an ice scraper with a protective sleeve, battery cables, a flashlight with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, a distress flag, a space blanket, a reflective vest, a utility knife, and more. Other useful items include a cell phone charger, road flares, a snow brush, and a tow rope. These items can prove invaluable in case of a roadside emergency during winter[3]. 

Understanding Road Conditions

Road conditions are a critical factor in ensuring safe and efficient travel. They can significantly impact the safety of drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. The goal in sharing this information is to provide an in-depth understanding of how the following factors impact winter driving safety: road conditions, winter hazards, and the influence of temperature on road surfaces.

Different Types Of Winter Road Hazards

Winter poses unique challenges for drivers, including reduced visibility, traction, and increased braking distances due to snow, ice, and freezing rain. Hazardous conditions worsen when snow melts and refreezes.

Drivers should be alert to various winter road hazards:

  • Frost Heaves: Moisture and soil cause the asphalt to rise and fall, leading to cracks, dents, or potholes.
  • Shifted Drain Covers: Freeze-thaw cycles can make drain covers loose.
  • Storm Debris: Debris from storms pose dangers.
  • Black Ice: A nearly invisible, slippery ice layer forms below 32°F.
  • Snow/Ice on Cars: Clear your vehicle for safety.
  • Potholes: Asphalt expands and compresses, forming damaging holes when hit.

Temperature Effects on Road Surfaces

Weather and temperature significantly influence road conditions. Asphalt, for instance, faces potential damage from extreme temperatures, be it scorching heat, heavy rain, or freezing conditions. The softening point of unmodified asphalt binders falls within a range of about 35-55°C (95-130°F). When it contracts due to temperature changes, it can create pavement cracks, which serve as gateways for moisture, making roads vulnerable to freeze-thaw damage. High temperatures also pose risks, leading to road buckling and extra expenses for road and vehicle repairs, impacting budgets and driver safety[4].

Safe Driving Practices In Snow

Driving in snowy conditions can be a daunting task, even for the most experienced drivers. The slippery roads, reduced visibility, and unpredictable behavior of other drivers make it a challenging endeavor. However, by adhering to certain safe driving practices, one can significantly reduce the risks of driving in snow[5]. 

Tips For Maintaining Proper Speed 

In snowy conditions, prioritize your safety with these guidelines[6]:

  • Adjust your speed: Slow down significantly in snowy weather. Speed limits are designed for ideal conditions, but snow and ice reduce traction. Prioritize reaching your destination safely over speed.
  • Maintain a safe following distance: In normal conditions, a three to four-second gap behind the vehicle ahead is recommended. However, in snowy or icy conditions, extend this gap to eight to ten seconds to allow for sudden stops. Remember that icy roads can increase braking distances by up to ten times compared to dry roads, underscoring the importance of a greater following distance. Drive safely!

How To Handle Skids And Slides

Handling skids and slides in winter driving is essential for safety. Stay calm if your vehicle skids; gently steer in your intended direction and ease off the gas—avoid slamming the brakes, which can worsen the skid. For a fishtail to the right, turn right, and to the left, turn left.

When stuck in snow or mud, don’t spin your wheels by revving the engine; this can make it worse. Instead, employ a gentle rocking motion by shifting between forward and reverse with a light touch on the accelerator.

Lastly, preparedness is key. Maintain a full gas tank to prevent freezing, and keep an emergency kit handy. Winter driving demands distinct skills like adjusting speed, increasing following distance, and mastering skid recovery for a safer snowy journey.

Snowplows And Winter Road Maintenance

As winter approaches, the focus on road maintenance and snowplow safety intensifies. Road maintenance teams work diligently to ensure safe winter travel. They prep vehicles for harsh conditions and use abrasives like sand to enhance traction on snow-covered roads, sometimes applying up to 1,200 lbs of sand per lane mile.

Chemicals like sodium chloride (salt), magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, calcium magnesium acetate, and potassium acetate are also employed for anti-icing and de-icing to combat snow and ice on roadways. These measures enhance road safety and increase road longevity.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Driving Near Snowplows

  • Maintain a safe distance: Stay at least 200 feet behind snowplows, as they typically travel at slower speeds, especially while plowing. It may require patience, but it’s essential for safety.
  • Avoid passing multiple plows: Never attempt to pass several snowplows at once or drive between them. Snowplows are large vehicles with blind spots, making passing them risky. If you must pass, consider the direction of snow removal. Tailgating or driving alongside a snowplow is unsafe, as it can result in snow and ice spraying onto your windshield and impairing visibility.
  • Be mindful of snowplow drivers: Snowplow operators work in conditions with limited visibility and challenging environments. They may experience distractions, cold weather, fatigue, or a combination of these factors. To ensure safety, drive defensively, maintain a safe distance, and reduce your speed when driving near snowplows[7].

Michigan Winter Driving Laws And Regulations

Winter driving can be challenging due to snow and ice, prompting many states to enforce specific laws and regulations for safety. These rules aim to prevent accidents and keep traffic flowing smoothly in harsh winter conditions.

Winter Tire And Chain Laws

One of the primary regulations pertains to winter tires or chains. Michigan law stipulates that commercial vehicles must use chains or alternative traction devices on certain roadways during the winter season. These devices provide added traction on icy or snowy roads, reducing the risk of accidents and traffic blockages.

Additional Tread Depth Requirements

Michigan, like several states, mandates a minimum tread depth for tires to ensure adequate grip on slippery surfaces. In many areas, including Michigan, the requirement is typically set at a minimum of 3/16-inch tread depth. This regulation helps vehicles maintain control on icy or snowy roads and is in effect during the winter season[8].

Failure to comply with these winter driving regulations can result in legal consequences. In Michigan, drivers who do not meet the required tread depth or use appropriate traction devices when needed may face penalties, including fines and potential traffic violations. Motorists must be aware of these regulations to avoid penalties and ensure safety during the winter months.

Ensuring Visibility In Snow

Maintaining visibility while driving in snowy conditions is paramount for safety, as winter weather can severely reduce visibility. To combat this challenge, here are essential strategies to ensure clear visibility through snow and ice:

  1. Effective Use of Headlights: Turn on your vehicle’s headlights in heavy snow to make your presence visible to others. Avoid using high beams or fog lights, which can blind other drivers. Regularly cleaning your headlights, including a cost-effective method of scrubbing with toothpaste, can enhance their effectiveness.
  2. Defrosters: Cold exterior temperatures and warm interior air can lead to fogged-up windows. Use your vehicle’s defroster on front and rear windshields before driving to prevent fogging. Keep the recirculation function off to reduce humidity. Running the air conditioning briefly can help dehumidify the air, improving visibility.
  3. Windshield Wipers: Ensure your windshield wipers are in good condition and replace them if they leave streaks or uncleaned spots on the windshield. Keeping the windshield wiper fluid reservoir filled is crucial for removing snow or ice.
  4. Window Preparation: Clear all windows of snow, ice, or fog before starting your journey. Remove snow from the hood to prevent it from dislodging while driving. Periodically wipe all lenses to keep them free of dirt or obstructions.

Planning Safe Winter Trips

Planning a winter trip is exciting but requires careful preparation for safety. Follow these tips for an efficient and safe winter journey:

  1. Prepare Your Vehicle: Check tire pressure and fluid levels regularly to ensure your vehicle is ready for winter conditions.
  2. Choose Safe Roads: Stick to main roads and highways, avoiding hilly and sloping routes when possible.
  3. Daylight Travel: Opt for daytime travel for better visibility and safety.
  4. Don’t Travel Alone: Whenever possible, avoid driving alone.
  5. Pack Blankets: Carry blankets to stay warm in case you get stranded.
  6. Check Weather Reports: Stay updated on weather conditions to plan your route and anticipate potential hazards.
  7. Safe Routes: Plan your route in advance, avoiding areas prone to snow and ice. Check local weather and traffic reports.
  8. Accommodations: Choose accommodations with proper heating systems and safety measures.
  9. Packing Tips: Wear warm, layered clothing, bring extra socks and underwear, and pack necessary winter clothing items.

Real-Life Winter Driving Stories

Winter driving can be a challenging and sometimes harrowing experience. The icy roads, heavy snowfall, and reduced visibility often test the skills and patience of even the most seasoned drivers. Here, we delve into some real-life winter driving stories that not only highlight the dangers of winter driving but also offer valuable lessons and advice.

John from Enfield, Connecticut, recalls a late October night in 2011 when he returned home from a friend’s house. As he drove, a rapidly developing snowstorm began to obscure his vision. He had to navigate unfamiliar detours due to a car crash and falling tree limbs weighed down by heavy snow. Despite the blackout at his apartment complex, he reached home safely. John’s story underscores the importance of being prepared for winter weather before it arrives. He advises keeping your gas tank full and having a plan for obtaining essentials like food and cash if power outages occur [9].

Rachel Anderson, who lived in eastern Washington but worked in Seattle between 2014 and 2019, shares her experiences of driving over Snoqualmie Pass every weekend. She witnessed cars losing control while speeding in the snow and accidents that could have been avoided with more cautious driving. Rachel’s advice is clear: slow down, be observant, and remember that your actions on the road affect not just your life but others’ lives as well[9].

Dan from New York narrates a story from February 1990 when he and his friends returned from a ski trip in Vermont. Driving through a blinding snowstorm, Dan followed a car ahead of him for direction, only to see it veer off the road. He stopped to help the driver, demonstrating the importance of community and assistance during challenging times[9].

These stories are not just about survival; they are about learning and adapting. They teach us to respect the power of nature and remind us of our responsibility towards ourselves and others. The advice is simple yet profound: allow enough time for your journey, keep your gas tank full, maintain clear visibility, slow down, and be observant. If you stall, stay with your vehicle and conserve fuel while maintaining warmth. And remember, it’s not just about getting to your destination; it’s about getting there safely.

Winter driving can be a test of skill and patience, but with the proper preparation and mindset, it can also be a lesson in resilience and community spirit. As we navigate the icy roads and snowy landscapes, let’s remember these stories and the lessons they offer. After all, every journey has a story, and every story has a lesson.

Winter Safety Driving Guide