Everything you need to know about winter driving

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Snowstorms, snow and slush on the roads make driving tricky during the last three months of the year. There was an increase of more than 13,000 crashes in October, November and December of 2013 than the rest of the year. (Helen Knipe)
Snowstorms, snow and slush on the roads make driving tricky during the last three months of the year. (Helen Knipe)

Provo resident Mandie Webb didn’t have extensive experience driving in harsh winter weather when she started fishtailing on ice somewhere between Montana and Idaho on her way home from a family trip last Christmas.

She wanted to pass a driver in front of her. The roads were slick and slushy, so she realized she had to slow down. But as she tried to pass, she skidded. That first time she recovered quickly and kept driving, but a second time attempting to pass another car resulted in a bad skid and spin.

Webb is a Utah native like 33 percent of BYU students, so she’s used to snowy winters. But she learned the hard way that driving in harsh winter weather requires slow speed, sharp awareness, quick reaction and constant preparation.

Although there is no guarantee to an accident-free winter, students from all over the country can prepare themselves for harsh driving conditions by knowing their conditions and preparing themselves and their cars for the worst.

Being prepared

Preparing for any natural or mechanical disaster means making time before braving the icy, slippery roads to ensure cars are ready to face the worst.

BYU’s Director of Transportation Services Scott Sherwood said drivers should learn to check the basics of their cars themselves so they can do it often.

“Everyone thinks their vehicle runs forever if they just change their oil,” Sherwood said. “People don’t realize it but when you’re driving in snow or loaded conditions like that, your engine’s actually working harder and it does need to be cool.” Insufficient freeze protection levels can also freeze and break radiators and destroy engines, he said.

AAA recommends checking car systems and parts that keep it functioning normally but that are important in guarding against cold weather.

Drivers should check their electrical system (battery, ignition system, lights), exhaust system (regulating gases and noises), heating and cooling systems.
Drivers should check their electrical system (battery, ignition system, lights), exhaust system (regulating gases and noises), heating and cooling systems.

Brakes don’t work the same on ice as they do on pavement, so drivers should gently press on brakes while stopping.

AAA spokesperson Rolayne Fairclough said in a press release “good tread allows water to escape from under the tires and increase traction.” She said drivers should “keep tires at proper pressure. Low pressure allows the tread to squeeze together and reduces traction. Too-high pressure prevents the tread from contacting the road thoroughly.”

Sherwood said almost a hundred percent of the tires he sees that come in for service have low tires. “Anytime there’s a seasonal change in temperature, tire pressures need to be checked because you’ll find that cold air will make the tire pressure reduce,” he said.

A chart on the inside of the driver door will detail specific recommended tire pressures.

All-season tires can work for winter conditions. “A lot of them have silicate rubber that grip the ice and snow better than the regular tires,” Sherwood said.

Check tire tread depth often to ensure they’re not worn out and they can grip the road.

  • Penny test: insert a penny into the tread groove with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If all of Lincoln’s head is visible, tread depth is less than 2/32 inch and tires should be replaced.
  • Quarter test: insert a quarter in the same way as with the penny test. If the tread touches Washington’s head, the tread depth is at least 4/32 inch deep and the tires are fine.

Checking on a car’s heating and cooling system includes keeping antifreeze, or coolant, fresh and at appropriate levels so the car doesn’t freeze. Sherwood said antifreeze is the most neglected part of car maintenance.

Simple checks are important, too. Change wipers when they leave streaks on the windshield. Keep a full tank of gas. Fairclough said a full tank will let drivers “change routes, idle for long periods of time, travel slowly or turn around in a storm…without worrying about running out of fuel.”

What to do before short- or long-distance trips:

  1. Plan ahead and wake up early. Drivers should check the weather weeks and days in advance to prepare themselves for the driving conditions. Peterson said apps and weather sites such as the Weather Channel and the National Weather Service are good at staying up-to-date on weather forecasts. Drivers can search by ZIP code or by a state’s road report.
  2. Leave early. This allows for slower driving speeds necessary in harsh weather.
  3. Stock a car before the harsh weather hits with the essentials below in case of an emergency.
  4. Turn on cars five to 10 minutes before leaving to clear the vehicle of snow and ice and to let the windows de-frost. Never leave a car running in an enclosed area.

What to keep in a trunk year-round and for winter trips:

Drivers should keep certain essentials in their cars to prepare for the worst. These essentials will help them stay warm, safe and fed and watered.
Drivers should keep certain essentials in their cars to stay warm, safe and fed and watered.

Car maintenance supplies, such as tire sealants and pressure gauges, will help drivers in and before an emergency. Abrasive material such as sand, salt, non-clumping cat litter or a swatch of carpet can help tires gain traction if the car gets stuck in mud or snow.

Whether a first-aid kit is homemade or store-bought, it should have the proper essentials. The American Red Cross recommends specifics and quantities for a family of four.

A pack of bottled water, or other forms of water containers and sources, will prevent dehydration. Extra food should include high-calorie nonperishables such as granola bars. Also consider instant meals that heat up with water.

Mylar space blankets have many uses and are cheap and lightweight. They also capture heat and reflect light well, which is useful in signaling for help. A space all weather blanket is more heavy duty.

Night supplies such as flashlights and phones should have fully charged batteries. Keep a mobile device car charger that works when the car is running. Reflector triangles can surround a vehicle stranded on the side of a road and can call for help while preventing other drivers from crashing into them.

Small tarps work as a temporary shelter. A small or collapsible snow shovel can dig a trapped car out of snow.

Driving in snow

Driving in packed or slippery snow amplifies every movement, especially in a low-visibility snowstorm. But clearing cars of all snow and ice and driving slowly are vital to maximizing visibility and control.

Drivers should increase following distance because it takes twice as long to slow down on snow and ice as it does on dry pavement, said BYU physics professor Bryan Peterson, who has taught a class on severe and hazardous weather.

Driving with properly maintained tires is vital to avoiding skids. Avoid making tracks in the snow because snow can build up in tire treads and reduce traction with the road. Tracks can also highlight icy spots and lanes lines, which snow obscures.

Driving on black ice

Black ice blends in with the pavement, but Peterson said drivers can notice it when the sun glints or glares off of it. Black ice forms when rain or melted snow freeze, usually overnight and in common areas, to form a smooth ice.

Avoid driving on black ice by avoiding driving in shady areas where the sun won’t be able to melt ice, such as under bridges, trees or other shaded areas. Drive slowly, especially when turning.

It’s best to let up on the gas and coast to a stop in a skid. Avoid braking. Turning the wheel into the skid realigns the wheels with the car and straightens out the spin. Turn the wheel in the direction the rear of the car is going, or steer in the direction you want the car to go.

Peterson said the car will notify drivers of a skid if they don’t know what it feels like. The speedometer might jump quickly because the back wheels are turning fast in the same place, increasing speed.

Some dashboards have a slip light that turns on when the car detects a slip. The flashing light means the system is working to control the vehicle. If the light stays on, the control system might be faulty, so it won’t work. Drivers in this situation should continue driving, but carefully.

Driving in the rain

Heavy rainfall presents the danger of hydroplaning, which occurs when a layer of water separates the tires from the road. Usually tires drive through and scatter water, but too much water prevents the traction needed for it. The following tips can help drivers avoid accidents in rainy situations.

  • Turn on headlights, even in the daytime, whenever windshield wipers are on
  • How to avoid hydroplaning:
    • Drive slowly in the rain. Speeds faster than 35 mph increase chances of hydroplaning.
    • Avoid driving in puddles
    • Avoid the outer lanes, which accumulate more water
    • Never drive with cruise control on. It decreases reaction time and increases stopping time.
    • Brake, turn and switch lanes slowly. Even the first ten minutes of a light rain when fresh rain mixes with oil dried on the road and creates a slippery surface that tires have difficulty gripping onto.

Recover from hydroplaning with the same method for escaping black ice. Brake in small, gentle pumps if there is little room to coast.

Driving in fog

Peterson said fog is condensation resulting from the mixture of cold air closer to the road and warm air on top of that. Fog is common at night because night air is colder than daytime air. It’s also common in areas closer to lakes and oceans because the cold air mixes with the warm water to form a steam.

Utah inversion can cause fog. “Anything you have in the air will block the sunlight,” Peterson said, which will reduce temperature and let the water evaporate and allow the fog to clear. The following tips can help drivers in foggy conditions.

  • Never drive faster than what you can see
  • Slow down
  • Keep on headlights, but on the low beam. Brights will just bounce off the fog back to you.
    • Use fog lights, if available. They shine low and wide under and beyond the fog.
  • Clean and clear taillights so drivers behind you can see you
  • Keep the defroster on so low temperatures don’t freeze the fog to the windshield
    • Crack open a window if needed
  • Don’t switch lanes unnecessarily
  • Pull over if you don’t feel comfortable driving
    • Always keep your hazards on to alert other drivers of your condition

Staying calm

Remembering the basics of driving, such as driving defensively and giving notice before turning and switching lanes, can help drivers maintain the little control they might feel they have in snowy, icy, slippery conditions.

But sometimes no matter how cautious and prepared drivers are, accidents still happen.

Webb’s father was in the passenger seat during the skid on the freeway. He talked Webb through the steps she needed to take to maintain control and recover.

Webb’s hands were shaking and her mind was in shock after the skid, but she couldn’t switch spots with her dad in the middle of the freeway. She had to keep driving. So she turned on music by the Piano Guys to find some calm and peace — and after a couple hundred miles, she did.

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