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Winter Driving Tips

Winter Driving Tips

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
Whether it's snow, ice, or heavy rain, winter can present a host of challenges to even the most experienced driver. Slick roads require a different, more cautious approach, and while there's no replacement for experience, here are a few techniques that can be used when driving on slippery roads:

Anticipate the situation. Many accidents could be prevented if the driver had just one additional second to react. When weather conditions are challenging, timing becomes even more critical. Look as far down the road as possible, and assess situations or circumstances that could cause potential problems. By noting road conditions, such as a patch of ice or a large puddle 10 cars ahead, and what actions drivers ahead of you are taking, you can adjust your driving in advance and anticipate problems before it's too late to react.

Leave extra distance between the vehicle in front of you. Just as you would while driving a heavier vehicle or while towing, leave extra distance between the vehicle in front of you when driving in winter road conditions. This extra distance will allow more time to react to potential hazards and will help compensate for reduced vehicle handling.

Do one thing at a time. A slippery road often means a loss of traction, which becomes even more challenging if you try to do too many things at once, such as accelerating or braking while turning. You can be more effective if you perform each driving maneuver separately. For example, when approaching a curve in the road, brake in the straight line prior to the curve. (Braking while in a turn, whether in rain, snow, ice, or even on a dry road at higher speeds, can upset the balance and stability of your vehicle, resulting in unwanted handling characteristics or even a loss of control.) Then, take your foot off the brake and steer through the curve. Finally, accelerate once you begin to straighten the steering wheel to exit the corner.

Understand how to use your vehicle's active safety features. While advanced safety technologies of today's vehicles, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, and all-wheel drive, can help in slick conditions, they are much more effective if you understand how they work. If your vehicle has ABS, a traction control system, four-wheel or all-wheel drive, learn how these systems work and how to drive with them. (To learn more about anti-lock brakes, read Driving with ABS.")

Don't overestimate your vehicle's capabilities. No matter how many technology and safety features your vehicle has, the laws of physics cannot be changed. Don't overestimate your vehicle's capabilities or your own driving ability. Assess road conditions (which can change at any moment), and drive at an appropriate speed for conditions.

Check your tires. The handling characteristics of every vehicle, whether it's a small, agile, and lightweight sports car or a tall, heavy, seven-passenger SUV, are dependent on four points (called contact patches) where the rubber on your tires meets the road. Because there is less traction on slick roads, the four contact patches are even more important, so be sure to check often that your tires are properly inflated and in good operating condition. Tires that are wearing unevenly, completely worn, or improperly inflated can seriously compromise traction on slippery roads and increase the potential for an accident. (To learn how to check your tires, read "Why Tire Care is Important.")

Getting unstuck. In winter conditions, even experienced drivers can occasionally find themselves sliding off the road. If you get stuck, don't try to get out of a rut simply by acceleration. Instead, slowly move the vehicle as far forward as possible, using the highest possible forward gear. Then, use reverse to back up as far as possible. The idea is to gently rock the vehicle until you make the ground level enough to drive away. A great deal of patience is required for success. If you're completely stuck and can't summon help with a cell phone or through your vehicle's satellite-linked, in-vehicle safety and security system (if so equipped), assess the situation to determine if it is safe for you to leave your vehicle and go for help. If it is not safe to exit the vehicle, stay inside with your seat belt fastened and your vehicle's hazard lights flashing until help arrives. Run the engine only for brief periods to keep the interior warm. If it is safe to do so, get out of the vehicle only to clear snow from the tailpipe (carbon monoxide can accumulate more easily in a stationary vehicle, especially if the muffler is packed with snow), clear the windshield, or to place flares or a warning triangle to alert oncoming motorists. Once back inside, keep your seat belt fastened until help arrives.

Carry emergency supplies. Because winter road conditions can be particularly hazardous, it's a good idea to carry, at a minimum, an emergency kit that contains first aid supplies that include emergency water (emergency water comes in a special container that prevents the water from freezing or getting contaminated), flares or reflectors, and an emergency blanket. There are many Web sites where you can order first aid kits or kits for winter weather conditions. Store the kit in a place you can reach from the driver's seat, such as the glove compartment or passenger seat back pocket.

Keeping these tips in mind while driving in winter conditions will make you better prepared to handle an emergency and provide for a less stressful drive.
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