9 Driving Safety Tips to Get You Ready for a Winter Drive
It’s never fun to be stuck on the side of the road, but in snow, ice or bitter cold, it can be downright miserable. Before you head out on a long drive or road trip in the winter, do these nine things.
- Check that your defroster, wiper blades, lights, battery, and brakes are working well. If any of them are due for service, now’s the time to get it done.
- Be ready to add traction: Carry snow chains. Check your tire pressure and tread depth, too.
- Know what you’re getting into. Find out about the weather along your route and get road condition updates.
- Charge up. Keep your mobile phone’s battery charged in case you are stranded and need to call for help.
- Fill your fluids. Add wiper fluid that includes de-icer. If you know how to do it safely, check your antifreeze, or have a mechanic do it for you.
- Cold air temps, wet conditions and dirty road spray make for foggy, blurry windshields. Use antifogger on the inside of your windshield and water repellent on the outside.
- Also use water repellant on your headlights. If your lens covers are scratched, consider restoring or replacing them as winter sets in.
- Keep the gas tank full in case you get lost, stuck in traffic or rerouted due to an accident.
- Carry a winter road trip safety kit that includes an ice scraper, a headlamp, warm accessories, snacks and other essentials just in case.
Now that your vehicle is ready, review ways to drive safely in our Stay Safe on the Road This Winter infographic.
How to: Put on Snow Chains and Drive Safely
First the bad news: if you travel to the mountains or snowy areas regularly, sooner or later you’re going to have to use tire chains.
Now the good news: these are not your grandpa’s chains. Quick-fit chains are MUCH simpler to put on and take off.
Do These Two Things Before You Need to Use Your Snow Chains.
The driving conditions when you need chains are likely to be nasty. Snow is coming down, passing traffic is spraying slush, dirty water is dripping off your wheel wells, the road is slick and it may be dark. Don’t make this the first time you put on your chains. Practice once BEFORE you travel. Make sure new chains are the right size by pre-fitting them on your tires somewhere dry, like your driveway or garage.
Second, put together a simple winter road trip safety kit with spare waterproof layers and items that will make your winter driving more safe and comfortable. In winter, always carry it in your car with your chains.
Want a quick how-to on putting on quick-fit snow chains? Here are a video, step-by-step instructions and driving safety tips.
When and How to Install Your Tire Chains
Snow chains are made for use on packed snow and slush. They shouldn’t be used for just driving on wet pavement, which makes them likely to break. Using them a lot on ice will also make them wear quickly, though sometimes it’s necessary to chain up to get past an icy patch of road.
Here’s how to put snow chains on.
- Pull off the road as far as possible on a safe shoulder. Flip on your hazard lights. Put on your slicker, gloves, hat, headlamp and waterproof pants from your winter road trip kit and grab your chains bag.
- Ideally, chains are installed on all four tires. Some people use them on only two. Look in your owner’s manual under snow chains or tire chains for what your vehicle manufacturer recommends and follow that advice. If you’re using only two, the chains should go on the drive wheels. Typically, chains go on the two front tires for four-wheel drive and front-wheel drive vehicles, and on the back for rear-wheel drives.
- Kneel or sit by the first tire on the tarp or cardboard from your kit. Unroll the chain, making sure the hook ends are facing the ground.
- Push the yellow end of the chains behind and around the tire. Pull the two ends over the top of the tire and fasten them.
- Grab the chains on both sides of the tire and pull them together toward the center of the tire.
- Then hook the red fastener into one of the links, as snug as you can make it. Don’t worry if there are some extra links.
- Push the cable toward the back of the tire, positioning the chains loosely over the tread.
- At the bottom of the tire is another red fastener and draw chain. Pull them toward you so there’s no slack. Feed the red draw chain around the opening on the fastener. Pull it tight and lock a link into the notch on the fastener.
- Feed the rubber end of the draw chain through the red rings. Depending on tire size, you may only be able to get it through one of the two rings, but try to get it through both. Stretch the rubber end tightly and hook it onto a link on the side chain.
- Repeat this entire process on the other tire(s).
- You want the chains tight against the tire tread. So drive forward about 15 feet and stop. The chain will have centered itself creating some slack. Retighten the draw chain on each tire. Then you’re ready to drive. Grab your towel from your road kit to sit on so you keep your seat dry.
- While driving, if you hear any indication that the chain may be broken and it’s hitting your car, STOP as soon as safely possible. Chains that are flapping can wrap around a strut or shock component causing big damage to your vehicle. Listen for a loud sound of slapping, or metal on metal.
- As soon as you’re through the snow zone and have a safe place to pull off, stop, put on your hazard lights and remove the chains. Take off your wet outer layers and throw them in your road kit. Remember: DON’T drive for any distance on bare pavement.
How to Drive With Snow Chains On
- Be sure to keep it at no more than 30 mph or you can damage not just your chains but your vehicle.
- Don’t lock your wheels by braking suddenly.
- Start slowly, to avoid spinning.
- When parking, give yourself extra space so you don't break your chains by hitting a curb.
When You’re Back Home
Because they’re steel, tire chains will rust if they’re stored wet. Lay them out to dry first.
Also check them for wear, especially if you’ve driven them on asphalt for any distance. Look for flat spots, and replace the chains if you find some.
Some stores that sell tire chains will give you a full refund at the end of the winter if you don’t use them. Check to see if this is offered before you buy.
Want more tips on winter road safety? See 19 Winter Driving Resources You Can’t Do Without.
19 Winter Driving Resources You Can’t Do Without
Winter driving in the West can be wacky at best and perilous at worst. Roads ice over. Rain makes pavement slick as bacon grease. Here are 19 winter driving resources on everything from fog lights to snow chains to driving on ice. Use these in addition to the warnings, notices or other advice specific to your vehicle in your owner's manual.
Got Traction? Winter Tires & Snow Chains
Don’t think of chains as a substitute for winter tires but as an option you need to have ready when you’re driving on snow.
You shouldn’t go on a winter drive without being sure of your traction. Find out how to use snow chains, the differences between all-season and winter tires and what you really need for where you live.
- How to: Put on Snow Chains. Step-by-step instructions and a video for putting on snow chains and driving safely.
- Snow Chains Buyer’s Guide. The Automobile Association’s guide to what you need and how to buy them.
- How to Choose Snow Tires. Are winter tires worth it? Can you just buy chains instead? Should you buy studded tires? What about siping?
Top Safety Reminders for Winter Road Trips
Don’t use cruise control. Your tires may spin too fast on slick roads, causing you to lose control.
Getting road-ready is different in the cold months. Don’t leave home without reading these short refreshers to prevent winter driving nightmares.
- 14 Items to Put in Your Winter Road Trip Safety Kit. Think you’re prepared? Here’s a checklist of what you may have forgotten.
- AAA’s guide How to Go on Ice and Snow. Easy-to-read info on safer driving in winter.
- 9 Driving Safety Tips to Get You Ready for a Winter Drive. A pre-trip checklist to get your vehicle winter-ready and quick tips on how to drive on slick roads.
- What to Do If You Get Stuck in Snow. Tips on getting your vehicle out of deep snow from an Icelandic off-road driving expert.
How to Drive in Rain, Snow, Ice and Fog
For a car traveling 35 mph on dry pavement, it can take anywhere from 60 to 97 feet for thinking and braking distance. Double that for driving on wet pavement, triple it for packed snow and 10 times it for icy roads.
Tips for handling all the bad driving conditions you're likely to face from the Pacific Northwest to the Rockies to Southern California and every place in between.
- Driving in Rain? How to Avoid Hydroplaning and Other Tips. When you’re most at risk of hydroplaning, preventing skids and what to do if you do lose control.
- Winter Driving Tips: How to Drive in Snow. What you should know about stopping distance, driving downhill and where the road’s going to be most dangerous.
- How to Drive Safely on Ice: Top Tips for Keeping Your Car on the Road. You can’t always tell when the road is icing up. Here’s when to use extra caution and steer clear of a wreck.
- How to Recover from 5 Types of Skids. For advanced drivers only, the low-down on different types of skids and how to safely steer when it happens.
- How Do I Drive Safely in Fog? How to drive safely in fog and a list of fog light rules for Western states.
- Common Winter Driving Myths Busted. Thinking you should gear down in slippery conditions? Think again.
- Winter Driving Guide. The difference between traction control and stability control.
Winterizing Your Vehicle
If it’s worked hard over summer, or the weather was really hot, your auto battery could have trouble holding a charge and delivering cranking power come fall.
Summer driving puts a lot of wear and tear on your vehicle. Here’s what you can do in fall to head off dead batteries and other hassles.
- Now Seasonal Car Battery Care: Why and How. Figure out if you need a new auto battery or not, before your car won’t start.
- How to Winterize a Car. A cold-weather survival guide for your car from Consumer Reports.
Real-time Road Conditions
Know in advance or in real time what’s happening with the weather and roads where you’re headed. Here’s where to find out.
- What You Need to Know About Road Conditions Right Now. Real-time road conditions in Western states, with chain requirements, current road reports, forecasts, road cams and winter storm warnings.
- AccuWeather Hyperlocal Weather App. An app for Apple or Android phones that gives hyperlocal, minute-by-minute precipitation forecasts.
- Weather Underground App. For use in rural areas, an app for Apple or Android phones with local data from over 40,000 professional and hobbyist weather stations.
If Nothing Else, Remember This About Winter Driving
When you’re in a hurry to get to work or your vacation rental it can be easy to forget that winter driving is not like warm-weather driving. In winter, bald tires, tailgating, leaving home on a near-empty tank or passing aggressively have even bigger consequences.
Almost a quarter of auto crashes in the U.S. annually - nearly 1,259,000 - are weather-related. Almost half of those happen during rainfall.
It’s better not to venture out at all when the weather’s awful. But if you absolutely have to be on the road, here are key things to remember.
Slowing down is more likely to get you there safely and on time than rushing. Statistics show you can expect bad weather on main roads to result in travel time delays from 11 to 50 percent. On arteries with traffic signals, you can expect speed reductions from 10 to 25 percent on wet pavement and from 30 to 40 percent with snowy or slushy pavement.
Why fight it?
Give yourself more stopping distance. Forget the 3-second rule; allow at least 120 feet on wet pavement, 180 feet on packed snow and 600 feet on ice to stop.
Make sure all parts of your vehicle are winter-ready - starting with the right tires, properly inflated and in good condition.