Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Driving in the Snow

Contributed by Ross Bentley
Winter is upon us, so it’s time to take a look at driving in that white stuff - snow.

Before you drive off after a snowfall, take a few minutes to make sure you can see, and that you can be seen by others. Not only is this common sense, it's the law. You can be fined for driving with the windows covered in snow or ice.

Clear all the snow off the hood, windows, trunk and all lights. You don't want snow flying off the hood and back onto the windshield, blinding you. Of course, de-fog the windows before driving, and always drive with your headlights on.

Obviously, the lack of traction is the biggest challenge in snowy driving conditions. If you drive a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, you may be able to help its forward traction a little by adding weight to the trunk. However, if you do get into a rear-wheel skid, the extra weight increases the centrifugal forces once the car begins to slide - just like a pendulum - possibly making matters worse. So, if you put extra weight in the trunk, place it as far forward as possible - preferably right over the rear axle.

And please don't add weight to the rear of a front-wheel-drive car. It not only won't help, it's dangerous.

Getting stuck in deep snow may be one of the most frustrating situations you ever face in the winter. Generally, it's not dangerous, just annoying.

The first objective is to avoid getting stuck in the first place by trying to keep up your momentum. Once you stop in deep snow, your chances of getting going again are reduced. Try to keep the car moving at all times, even if it means just crawling along at a couple of kilometres per hour. In fact, don't carry too much momentum, because your stopping power is much reduced as well.

If you do get stuck, don't just sit there spinning your wheels. All that does is create an icy patch under the tires, which will make it even tougher to get out. Instead, turn off the radio, the heater fan and windshield wipers, open your window and really listen for any spinning of the tires.

Before you even try to get going, though, get out of the car and clear as much snow as possible away from right in front of the tires. If possible, put some sand, kitty litter or even some old carpet (keep this "winter traction kit" in the trunk along with a small shovel, candles, matches, a drinking cup and non-perishable food) down in front of the tires to give them some traction. Give them a chance to get moving - to get some momentum - before having to plow through the deep snow again.

If you still can't get moving, your next objective is to rock the car backwards and forwards until it has enough momentum to get out of the snow rut. In an automatic, quickly but smoothly shift from Drive to Reverse and back again, trying to stay in sequence with the rocking of the car.

In a standard transmission vehicle, gradually start forward then immediately release the clutch, allowing the car to roll back. Then ease the clutch out to move forward again to the front of the rut, then release the clutch and roll back. Do this until the car has the momentum to drive out of the rut.

Use the highest gear possible in an automatic - Drive or Overdrive. In a standard transmission vehicle, try starting in second gear. You may even want to shift up to third and fourth gear earlier than you normally would. Using a higher gear will cause less wheelspin.

Now that you've got your vehicle moving, keep it under control until we look at controlling a car in snowy conditions in a future column.

Now that we've got it going, let's look at keeping it under control in the snow.

First, take it easy when crossing snow-covered intersections. The snow usually becomes packed, polished and very slippery from drivers skidding and sliding at the stop sign or traffic light.

Be very careful when driving in ruts in the snow, as they can pull your car from side to side, or into on-coming traffic. Always look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go. This will automatically make you steer in the direction you want to go, helping control the car's tendency to follow the ruts - which may not be where you want to go.
Also, be careful if your car pops out of the rut, especially if your front wheels are turned. Jumping, or popping, out of a rut with the wheels steered sharply to the left or right usually tends to make the car skid sideways. Again, look and steer where you want to go, turning the steering as little as possible.

If you have to change lanes on a snowy road, be very smooth with your steering and don't accelerate or decelerate. As long as you keep steady - turning the steering wheel as little as possible - driving gently with your speed not too high, you shouldn't have much to worry about when crossing the deep snow and ruts between the lanes.

Often, the tracks, or ruts, made by other vehicles are packed hard and are much icier than the snow next to it. Try to avoid having to brake in these ruts. You will be able to stop much quicker in deep snow, as it will build up in front of the tires, helping stop your car.

Try to do only one thing at a time. Do your braking before a corner in a straight line, then take your foot completely off the brake pedal before you steer around the corner, and don't begin accelerating until you are pointing straight ahead again.
So, whether you're sliding towards a ditch, another car, a telephone pole or whatever, don't look at it. Don't focus on where you could crash. Instead, look and steer where you want to go. That's your best chance of controlling a skidding vehicle.

Before just blindly attacking a snow covered hill, think about whether you can make it up or down safely. Often, that means waiting until the road is clear of other vehicles before attempting it yourself. Too many drivers attack hills while there are other vehicles stuck or spun sideways on it, only to have to stop or slow to let them get out of the way - and getting stuck themselves. It would be much better to wait until the hill is clear, and then drive it all in one shot.

When driving up a hill, or trying to get out of deep snow, try using as high a gear as possible. In an automatic, use Drive or Overdrive. In a standard transmission vehicle, use one gear higher than you normally would - try starting in second and then use third or fourth when climbing a hill.

One last thing. Watch your speed in snowy conditions, especially when coming off a clear major roadway onto a snowy side road. The quick change in conditions can really take you by surprise.


  1. As an extra safety precaution, one should always inform someone whenever you're going out for a drive. Driving safely is important, but that does not completely prevent the risk of an accident happening on the road. By doing so, someone would at least have an idea of where you are in case you get into trouble during the winter.

  2. Very good idea. Thank you for adding to this.

  3. I really appreciate this post. I've been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thank you again
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