Essential Guide to Safe Winter Driving: Expert Advice & Resources
Winter can be a dangerous time to be on the roads, but rain or sunshine, the streets stay open, and millions of people continue to drive them every day. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, less than ideal winter driving conditions result in more than 116,800 injured drivers every year, which is why it’s crucial to educate yourself on how to stay safe on the road whether you’re driving or a passenger.
In this guide, MoneyGeek takes you through the necessary steps to winter driving safety, from preparing your vehicle to navigating different winter conditions, keeping your loved ones and even your pets safe.
Keep up with maintenance checks. Proper maintenance can ensure your vehicle is prepared to handle driving in various winter conditions.
Practice makes perfect. Practice driving in different weather conditions using open parking lots and spaces to learn how your vehicle handles.
Stay protected. Make sure your car insurance policy includes proper winter weather coverage, including liability, collision and comprehensive coverage.
Daily Winter Checklist Before You Start Your Drive
Before you jump into the driver's seat of your vehicle this winter, you’ll want to be fully prepared for whatever weather conditions you may face on the road.
You’ll want to have a daily checklist to make sure you are ready. Some items on your checklist are necessary, such as clearing snow off your windshield, but others, such as clearing your exhaust pipes, could be a matter of life and death if not checked daily. Before you shift into drive, follow this checklist.
Look at the weather
Winter weather can be unpredictable. You could leave for work in the sun with clear roads and be heading home on inches of fresh snow and ice. Before heading out, check the weather for the day so you can be prepared for whatever winter conditions are coming. If you’ll be driving in the snow, make sure you know how to access your vehicle's winter driving mode or have chains ready in your car.
Check your driving route
You can keep yourself and others safe by planning your route before you leave. Using services like Google or Apple Maps can help you prepare for any slowdowns in traffic, accidents or road closures due to winter conditions.
Stock your vehicle
There are a variety of tools and supplies that can help you stay safe while driving in winter. Depending on the severity of the weather you face, consider keeping the following in your car:
- Snow shovel
- Ice scraper
- Sand or kitty litter
- Jumper cables
Clear the exhaust pipe
Perhaps the most important thing you can do in winter before starting your vehicle is to make sure that your exhaust pipe stays clear of snow or ice at all times. If your pipe gets clogged and backed up, carbon monoxide gas will leak into your vehicle, which may cause serious health issues or death.
Remove snow and ice from windows
Visibility is crucial in winter conditions. Using an ice scraper, thoroughly remove all snow and ice from your windshield and additional windows. Don’t forget about your side-view mirrors and even your backseat and cargo windows, as you’ll need them to check for cars in your blind spot.
Check your roof
If you have driven behind a vehicle with a foot of snow piled on its roof, then you have an idea of the constant stream of snow flurries blowing off a car’s roof can directly obstruct your view of the road. Using a snow scraper or broom to brush off the top of your vehicle is a courtesy to help other drivers stay safe on the road.
Clear cameras of debris and snow
In 2018, Congress made it a law that all new vehicles had to have a back-up camera installed. Cameras enhance rear-view visibility. Before backing out of your garage, driveway or parking spot, make sure your cameras are free of debris and snow. This might require you to use a wet towel to remove built-up dirt that has splashed on your camera from driving on wet roads.
Keeping Your Children and Pets Safe
Oftentimes we have more than just our own safety to think about when we’re behind the wheel. If not properly dressed or secured in the vehicle, children can slip out of their car seats, and animals can be thrown around or even out of a vehicle in an accident. Keeping your children and pets safe while driving in dangerous conditions starts long before you get in the car.
Avoid Bulky Clothes
If you’re driving with children young enough to require a car seat, make sure to avoid dressing your child in bulky clothes. While layers of clothing keep your child warm, they don’t allow a car seat to stay properly tightened. If you’re concerned about your child’s temperature, you can use mittens, gloves, hats and blankets over the car seat buckles to ensure they’re secure and stay warm.
Purchase Pet Seat Belts or Gates
When it comes to traveling with your furry kids, there are additional precautions you can take. Consider purchasing a dog seat belt to help your pet stay secure in their seat or a doggy gate that is fitted to the back of your vehicle to limit the animal's space to move around.
Whether you’re driving with a human or fur child, it’s important to practice safe winter driving habits and limit driving distractions.
Preparing Your Vehicle for Winter Weather Conditions
Gearing up for winter means preparing your vehicle for the potentially hazardous conditions you’ll face over the winter months. This means checking aspects of the inside, outside and under the hood of your car. You most likely understand the importance of assessing your tires and checking your battery, but there are a number of additional maintenance checks you can do to make sure your car is ready for winter.
Make Sure Your Headlights Are in Working Condition
Recommended maintenance check: every three months
Even though your headlights can last several months or even a year, it’s recommended to check them every three months. The best way to make sure your headlights are functioning properly is to ask someone to stand in front of your vehicle while you turn them on and off. If you’re alone, you can park your car in a dark place, turn on your headlights, get out of your car and check that both your low and high beams are working.
Assess Your Tires
Recommended maintenance check: every month
It’s necessary to check the tread and examine your tire pressure monthly. A well-known trick for checking your tread is the penny test. Take a penny and place it head first into the tread grooves across the tire. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, then it’s time for new tires.
To check the tire pressure, you can use a tire pressure gauge, which you can purchase for $5-15 at your local auto store. You can usually find your tires’ ideal tire pressure on a sticker inside your driver’s side door.
Snow tires are designed to have better tread and are made with soft rubber that is better for gripping snow and icy roads. If you live somewhere that you’ll spend a considerable amount of time driving in the snow, purchasing winter tires can greatly increase your safety on the road. Snow tires can run anywhere from $100 to $400 per tire, and when properly maintained, they can last three to four winter seasons before you need to replace them.
Checking Your Brakes
Recommended maintenance check: every six months
Every six months, you should check your brake pads to see how worn down they may be. When your brake pads get worn, your brakes start to squeak, and it’s time to have them replaced. If you’re mechanically savvy, you can check your brake pads yourself, but since brakes are a crucial part of your vehicle, it is best to have a professional check them.
Checking Your Window Wipers
Recommended maintenance check: every six months
Windshield wiper blades should be checked and potentially replaced every six months. It’s easy to tell if your windshield wiper blades are fully functioning by giving them a test run. If they leave streaks on your window, it may be time to replace them. If you’ll be dealing with a lot of snow and ice this winter, you can purchase winter wiper blades that are more durable than your average wiper blades.
Installing Chains and Cables
If your vehicle does not have four-wheel or all-wheel drive, you’ll want to travel with a pair of cables or chains. Before winter hits, watch a few YouTube videos or ask your local auto shop to show you the proper way to put chains on your vehicle so that you’re not stuck doing it for the first time in the middle of a storm.
Dos and Don'ts
- Only put your chains on when your vehicle is parked and turned off.
- Turn off any traction control or anti-skid mode in your vehicle.
- Practice putting chains on before you drive.
- Don't go faster than 35 mph with chains on your tires.
- Don't lock your brakes or spin your wheels by suddenly starting or braking.
- Don't drive on bare pavement.
Under the Hood Maintenance
While there are a variety of ways you can prepare the outside of your vehicle for winter driving safety, you’ll want to perform routine maintenance under the hood of your car as well. Your battery, oil, fuses and fluids are under the hood, and they each play a critical role in your vehicle running properly.
Test Your Battery
Recommended maintenance check: every three months
With any electronic machine, the battery is what enables the machine to turn on. A dead car battery means a dead vehicle, and cold winter temperatures require a fully-charged battery to work. You can tell your battery might have a low charge if your car has a hard turning on. Unless you have a battery tester, you’ll need to take your vehicle to a local auto shop to have the battery checked. You should check your battery every three months.
Check Your Wiper Fluid
Recommended maintenance check: every month
You should check your wiper fluids every month to ensure you have an adequate amount. Checking your wiper fluid levels is simple. Open the hood of your car and locate your windshield wiper reservoir. Remove the cap to see how much wiper fluid you have. Most vehicles will provide marks within the reservoir to show the recommended fill amount. It’s best to purchase de-icer windshield wiper fluid during the winter, which helps ice melt quicker on your windshield.
Have an Emergency Plan
Have two emergency kits: one that you keep in your vehicle at all times to deal with unexpected winter conditions, and a second that you take with you for longer travel, which includes extra clothing, food items and cash.
Even if you check all of the preparation boxes, emergencies can happen. Having an emergency kit in your car can make a cold and unfortunate winter situation easier to navigate. Some recommended winter emergency driver kit items include:
- Warm clothes
- Non-perishable food
- $100 cash
- Extra batteries
- Snow removal equipment
- Gloves and boots
- First-aid kit
- Phone charger
- Easy access to your car insurance information
Car Insurance and Winter Driving
If you reside in a state that experiences harsh winters, you’ll want to have adequate car insurance coverage that will protect you if you’re involved in a winter-related incident. Fortunately, several car insurance options can provide coverage if you’re in a winter-related incident.
Liability car insurance: Liability insurance covers the cost for any damages that occur to a third party or their property if you’re in an at-fault accident. For example, suppose you slide on black ice and hit another vehicle. In that case, liability insurance will cover the damages to the vehicle and any personal injuries to the person driving the vehicle you hit.
Collision insurance: Collision insurance will pay to replace or repair any damage to your vehicle if you collide with another vehicle or object.
Comprehensive insurance: Comprehensive insurance covers everything that collision insurance does not. In the winter months, it may cover incidents such as an icicle falling on your car and denting the hood or colliding with an animal.
While liability insurance is required in most states, collision and comprehensive insurance is optional. When shopping for car insurance quotes, it’s best to understand what options you’ll need to ensure you’re getting an adequate policy.
While it’s illegal to drive without car insurance in most states, if you’ll be driving for a short amount of time or renting a vehicle in the winter, you can opt for short-term car insurance. You can reach out to a car insurance company to ask about short-term options or research the most affordable car insurance providers. Rental companies will offer insurance coverage you can take advantage of if you don’t have your own coverage.
Know Your Vehicle’s Capabilities
Every year manufacturers are working to make vehicles safer to operate and adding features that can help with safe driving throughout the year. Many of these features come in handy in winter driving, such as traction control, anti-lock braking systems and adaptive headlights. However, it’s important to be an educated driver on your vehicle’s operating capabilities.
- Traction control helps to prevent your wheels from spinning on slippery surfaces like snow and ice.
- ABS or anti-lock braking systems help increase the stopping distance in snow, ice and even muddy conditions.
- Adaptive headlights increase visibility around hills and curves in low-light by reacting to the car’s speed, steering and elevation.
- Electronic stability control applies the brakes to individualized wheels and reduces engine power to help avoid spinning out.
To get a full understanding of your vehicle's safety features, spend some time looking through your owner’s manual to familiarize yourself with the capabilities of your car and how they can assist in being a safe driver.
How to Drive in Severe Weather Conditions
While new vehicles are becoming more equipped with safety features, winter driving safety relies heavily on understanding how to drive in the most common winter conditions. There are different strategies and techniques to successfully drive in snow versus ice or rain versus wind.
Practice Defensive Driving
Every year, 24% of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement from cars sliding on the road. The best way to avoid sliding into another vehicle or object is to keep a proper distance from the vehicle in front of you. While the average distance to remain behind a vehicle is three to four seconds, you’ll want to increase it to eight to ten seconds in winter.
The three keys to successfully drive in snow include slowing down, keeping a safe distance and not slamming on your brakes. It’s also important to remain patient, calm and alert behind the wheel. If your vehicle is not all-wheel drive, you’ll need to manually engage your four-wheel drive. For vehicles that are not all-wheel drive, you may need to purchase cables or snow tires.
Ice and Black Ice
Driving on ice is a scary scenario. Even with the best winter tires, ice is slippery and unforgiving. To ensure your safety when driving on ice, maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you, tap your brakes to slow down, never slam on them and accelerate slowly to prevent wheel spinout.
Black ice forms on roadways when the road is wet, and the temperatures are low. Black ice can be difficult to see, making it even more dangerous to encounter if you are driving full speed. Have an idea of when and where to expect black ice to help you prepare. Black ice typically forms in the early morning or at night, and it is most likely around areas where the sun doesn't shine. One way to prepare yourself for driving on black ice is to practice driving on slippery surfaces, so when you encounter black ice, you know how to handle your vehicle.
Fog is an underestimated, dangerous driving condition. Dense fog can reduce visibility to the extent that you’re unable to see the front of your vehicle, let alone the road in front of you. If you must drive in the fog, it’s best to keep your distance from other vehicles, use your low-lights and know your driving limits. Oftentimes it’s safer to pull over and wait for the fog to clear than try and navigate the conditions.
Driving in the rain can be deceptive as a large amount of water build-up could cause your vehicle to hydroplane. Hydroplaning is when your vehicle’s tires lose traction with the road and cause you to slide as if you were driving on ice. To remain safe in the rain, keep your distance from other vehicles, slow down your driving speed and avoid standing water, like puddles.
Sleet is when rain turns to slush before it hits the ground and results in a slushy road condition. Driving safely in sleet is similar to driving in the rain and the snow. Slow down your speed and maintain a safe distance from other drivers. Be cautious when driving around corners or making turns.
Most of the time, driving in the wind is no big deal. However, heavy winds can be as dangerous as driving in a blizzard. Keep your eyes peeled for flying objects and what’s happening around you. It’s best to keep a safe distance from large vehicles that might blow over and slow down your speed. You’ll also want to keep both hands firmly on the wheel in case the wind nudges you around the road.
Bridges, Overpasses and Ramps
Driving on an icy bridge or overpass can be scary. Bridges stay icy longer than your typical roads because they’re elevated and can’t utilize the warmth from the ground, according to the Weather Channel. Just as if you were to encounter ice or snow on the road, keep a safe distance from other vehicles, don’t accelerate quickly or slam on your breaks and slow down your speed when driving on bridges, overpasses or ramps.
Driving Scenarios and What to Do
Many common scenarios can arise when you’re driving. Whether it’s summer or winter, these actionable solutions will keep you and your families safe this winter if you encounter any of the following situations.
Expert Insight on Winter Driving Safety
MoneyGeek spoke with a variety of industry leaders to provide expert insight on winter driving safety. From how to avoid accidents to new technology that can help increase your safety on the road, our experts weighed in on staying safe on the roads in the winter months.
- What is the most common action causing winter driving accidents that can be avoided by drivers?
- What is the most important thing you can do to prepare for winter driving?
- What’s the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? Which is better in the snow?
- How has new technology affected the safety of driving in winter conditions?
Personal Finance Expert and Analyst at Finder
President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Subject Matter Expert, Driver Safety Education and Training
Public Information Officer (PIO), South Lake Tahoe California Highway Patrol
Resources for Safe Winter Driving
There are various resources and organizations dedicated to helping drivers stay safe on the roads in the winter and all year long. From providing tips for safe driving and preparing your vehicle to avoiding distracted driving and teaching teens how to drive in inclement weather conditions, the following resources are valuable to keep on hand.
- Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety: The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety includes consumer, medical, public health, law enforcement and safety groups and insurance companies who work together to make America’s roads safer.
- California Highway Patrol: The California Highway Patrol provides valuable information on driving safely during the winter.
- Insurance Information Institute: The Insurance Information Institute helps consumers better understand insurance, provides resources for winter driving safety and how your insurance can help if you’re in a weather-related accident.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides safety resources related to driving in variable winter conditions.
- National Safety Council: The National Safety Council advocates for safety in the workplace and on the roads for individuals who are impaired.
- Safe2Save: Save2Save is a mobile app designed to assist in stopping distracted driving.
About Sara East
- Drive Safely. "Traffic School, Defensive Driving & Drivers Ed | I Drive Safely – We Build Safer Drivers." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- Firestone Auto Care. "How to Tell If You Need New Tires." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- HealthyChildren.org. "Winter Car Seat Safety Tips from the AAP." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- Midas. "Shopping for Snow Tires." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Tips for Traveling Safely." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- The Weather Channel. "What Makes Icy Bridges So Dangerous." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Transportation. "Snow and Ice." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- World Class Auto Repair. "How Often Should Your Check the Health of Your Car." Accessed November 8, 2020.
- Your Mechanic. "Driving with ABS in Snow and Ice." Accessed November 8, 2020.