Winter Driving Dangers and How to Avoid Them
- Winter Driving Dangers
Warm blankets, hot chocolate and icy roads are here again, bringing snow that glistens and worsening driving conditions.
More than 1,300 people die and another 100,000 are injured in crashes on snowy or icy roads every year. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, almost 40% of weather-related vehicle crashes occur during snowy or icy conditions. Snow and ice buildup on roads reduces friction with the pavement, limiting your ability to turn quickly, change speeds and stop.
You can take essential steps to protect yourself and your passengers as you drive on winter roads. The first step is knowing the dangers of winter driving.
Most Dangerous States for Winter Driving
More than 70% of U.S. roadways are located in areas averaging more than five inches of snow per year. While most of us can't avoid driving in icy and snowy conditions every winter, some states are more dangerous than others.
Michigan is the most dangerous state for winter driving, with an average of 54 deaths on the roads every winter. MoneyGeek analyzed data from NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System for 2016–2018 and found that when road conditions included sleet, snow, blowing snow or freezing drizzle, Michigan had the highest fatality rate. The top 10 most dangerous states for winter driving are:
- North Dakota
- New York
MoneyGeek's ranking of the most dangerous states for winter driving incorporated total fatalities in winter driving conditions, the fatality rate adjusted for vehicle miles traveled in the state and the state's score on our ranking of the states with the safest drivers. The ranking includes some surprising states with winter conditions where winter driving is safer, like Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The Most Dangerous States for Winter Driving
Before the sleet, ice and snow hit your area, there are measures you can take to prepare your vehicle for changing road conditions.
Get a Checkup
The worst time for your car to break down is in freezing temperatures, so it’s essential to get your car serviced to check for leaks, worn hoses and other maintenance items. Your brakes, defroster, heater and lights should all be working correctly.
Need a Recharge?
Battery power drops with the temperature. You want to make sure your battery has enough voltage, amperage and reserve capacity to start on those cold mornings. If your battery is more than three years old, consider replacing it.
Verify Your Auto Insurance
Checking your car insurance policy can help protect you in the event of a weather-related incident. Even if you're driving responsibly, some accidents are unavoidable if you and another car collide in icy conditions. Call your insurance provider or verify your plan online to double-check your winter weather coverage. You may want to shop around for car insurance quotes if you're in a high-risk winter driving state and your coverage is not adequate.
Snowstorms can drain your windshield wiper fluid quickly. Top off your washer reservoir before the first snow hits, and then keep refilling it throughout the season. Late fall is an excellent time to check if those wipers need a replacement.
Have you checked your floor mats in a while? Are they still in the right place and clear of debris? If not, it's time to clean up and re-secure them. Improperly installed floor mats can get in your way and prevent you from hitting the gas or brake properly.
If you're always pushing it to the last mile before filling up your gas tank, winter is the time to change that habit. First of all, you don't want to be stranded in the cold. Secondly, you won't get as far on that last gallon of gas. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in short-trip city driving, a conventional gasoline car's gas mileage is about 12% lower at 20 F than it would be at 77 F.
You should check your tire tread regularly, but in slick conditions, it's critical. The minimum tread for any road conditions is 2/32 of an inch. In winter driving, the more tread, the better. Tire pressure also changes with colder temperatures, so check your owner's manual to find the right pressure and add air if needed.
To Buy or Not to Buy: New Tires
There are four different types of tires: all-season, winter, summer and all-terrain. Most of us have all-season tires unless we have a vehicle capable of going off-road.
All-season tires handle multiple road conditions, balancing some snow capabilities with summer traction. However, to be effective in all situations, the tires compromise on some abilities. Winter tires are designed for extreme conditions and are created specifically to handle the cold and snow and provide traction on that dreaded ice.
Do you need snow tires? The answer lies in where you do your winter driving. "For a significant part of the United States, all-season tires provide adequate year-round performance," says Ellen Edmonds of AAA. "However, millions of motorists in northern or mountainous parts of the country could benefit from having a dedicated set of winter tires. Some consumers may hesitate to purchase a separate set of winter tires because of the additional cost. However, having a dedicated set of winter tires in climates that call for it will make winter driving significantly safer."
While some states allow studded tires for winter driving, others require chains in certain conditions. Studded tires provide the best traction, with pins that act like claws to dig into the ice. However, there are restrictions on when you can use them. Chains are only temporary additions and are not designed to drive at highway speeds or on bare pavement.
Like a good Scout, it's a good idea to adopt the motto "be prepared" when it comes to winter driving. You can do so by keeping emergency supplies in your trunk. Tuck these items in the back now so they are there when you need them:
- Spare tire
- Snow shovel
- Ice scraper
- Jumper cables
- Sand or kitty litter
- Cell phone charger
Before you leave for a ski vacation or a trip to Grandma’s house, you should plan your travel, checking the weather and road conditions as well as your route. Always give yourself extra time to drive slower.
If you're traveling with kids, make sure they are correctly harnessed in a car seat. While you may want to keep them bundled up in their winter coat, this interferes with the fit. Always remove thick outerwear, buckle up the kids and then place blankets or coats over the secure harness.
Stay Safe on the Road
Ellen Edmonds of AAA advises that once bad weather hits, the first step to staying safe on the roads is to stay home. "If you really don't have to go out, don't," she says. "Even if you can drive well in bad weather, it's better to avoid taking unnecessary risks by venturing out."
Know Your Car
If you must drive, know your vehicle and how it responds to the snow. Most vehicles have anti-lock brakes, which means you need to apply firm, continuous pressure when braking. Do not pump the brakes with anti-lock braking.
It can't be overstated. Drive to the conditions of the road, not necessarily to the speed limit. It is harder to stop your vehicle on slick roads, so decrease your speed and increase your following distance. Edmonds suggests, "Allow five to six seconds of following distance between your vehicle and any vehicle in front of you. This space allows you time to stop safely if the other driver brakes suddenly."
Like stopping, accelerating is also more challenging in icy conditions. Apply the gas slowly to gain traction as you get started, and once you're going, don't stop if you can avoid it. "If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it," says Edmonds. This advice is especially true for hills, she notes. “There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some traction going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill."
If you do skid, don't panic. Dan Robinson, a storm chaser who writes for the Storm Highway blog, says there are three rules to follow when you lose control:
- Don't hit the brakes. Braking makes the slide worse; ease your foot off the gas instead.
- Turn into the slide. Turn your wheels in the direction the back of the vehicle is sliding.
- Don't overcorrect. Overcorrecting causes the car to keep spinning and is more likely to cause an accident.
When the winter weather hits, it's a good idea to enjoy it safely from home, preferably in front of a blazing fire and wrapped up in your favorite blanket. But if you have to venture out, be prepared and take it slowly. And no matter what the driving conditions, when you’re behind the wheel, avoid distracted driving and stay alert.
To determine which states are most dangerous for winter driving, MoneyGeek analyzed the winter driving fatalities, the fatality rate adjusted for vehicle miles traveled, and how safe the state’s drivers are.
Winter Driving Fatalities are the driving fatalities reported by the NHTSA when road conditions included sleet, snow, blowing snow or freezing drizzle for the most recent three years of data 2016-2018. This metric is given double weight in the calculation of the final winter danger score.
Winter Driving Fatality Rate is the rate of winter driving fatalities per billion vehicular miles traveled. This metric is given full weight in the ranking.
Safe Driver Score is the final score calculated by MoneyGeek in its rating of the states with the safest drivers. For this analysis, the scores have been scaled to range from 0 to 100, with 100 being the safest. In the calculation of the final winter danger score, this metric is reversed such that 100 represents the least safe drivers and then included given half weight.
Final Winter Danger Score is calculated by converting each metric to a 100 point scale and combining them based on their weighting. The final scores is scaled from 0 to 100, where 100 is the most dangerous. The overall ranking of the states is based on this score.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Fatality Analysis Reporting System." Accessed November 4, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Fuel Economy in Cold Weather." Accessed November 4, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. "Road Weather Management Program, Snow and Ice." Accessed November 4, 2020.