Winter Driving Tips: How to Drive in Snow

According to the Federal Highway Administration, about a quarter of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement and 15 percent happen during snowfall or sleet.

Now for the good news. With the right preparation, you can travel safely even when the weather turns on you. Hint: properly inflated tires in good condition are near the top of the list. This is a must so you have the traction you need.

When you find yourself driving on snow or you’re caught in a storm, remember the following advice on vehicle handling.

How to drive on snow and when it’s snowing

  • Here’s a checklist for what you need to do to be prepared.
  • Clear snow off windows, mirrors and roof before you leave. When you brake, snow on top can slide forward and cover your windshield.
  • Also brush snow off your lights, so you have the best light on the road and other drivers can see you.
  • Cut your speed and leave more space between you and the vehicle ahead. A rule of thumb is eight to 10 seconds for a good following distance depending on your tire tread, the weight of your car, the road slope, amount of snow on the road and visibility conditions. You may want even more.

Stopping distance on packed snow

  • How much stopping distance will you need? For the reasons above, safe stopping distance varies by vehicle. 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 for icy roads. (See this Stopping Distances in Feet chart for calculations at multiple speeds.) 

Avoid skids

  • Avoid sudden stops, abrupt downward gear shifts and quick direction changes. Brake gently to avoid skidding or sliding. If the wheels lock up, ease off the brakes.
  • Know what to do before you go into a skid. Skid car classes on how to drive on slick roads are a great idea for young drivers and anyone else traveling by road a lot in winter.
  • The rules for getting out of a skid depend on a lot of factors: whether you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), if you have front- or rear-wheel drive, whether the road is icy, if you’re going downhill, if you have extra weight in your vehicle. Read the Skid Correction info here for a primer.
  • The way to drive downhill on packed snow depends on whether you have ABS. If so, start at the top of the hill as slowly as possible. Leave your auto in normal drive gear and use light, steady pressure on the brake pedal to stay at a safe speed. This allows your antilock braking system to maintain traction by making sure all four tires slow at the same rate when you apply the brakes. (Learn more here.) If you don’t have ABS, proceed slowly and lightly pump your brakes on the way down.

  • Don’t be overconfident just because you have all-wheel drive (AWD). Here’s why. You’ll get the best traction for driving in winter conditions with snow tires mounted on all four wheels.

Use extra caution

  • Stay in your lane, especially when visibility’s bad from driving snow. Think twice about passing. More hours of darkness and foul weather mean we just don’t see as well on the road in winter.
  • Give trucks and snowplows plenty of room. Stay well into your lane and don’t follow closely. Big vehicles blow a lot of snow around which lowers visibility.
  • NEVER pass big vehicles on the right. Debris, rocks and ice that can crack your windshield get sprayed in all directions from snowplows.

  • Don’t drive through snowdrifts. They may cause your vehicle to spin out of control.
  • When it’s snowing, don’t use your brights. They will reduce, not improve, road visibility.
  • If you’re noticing snow turn to sleet or ice, kick your defroster into high. If ice builds up on your windshield pull over when you’re in a safe place and use an ice scraper.  Don’t try to squint through a small section of your windshield.
  • Use extreme caution when approaching off-ramps, bridges and shady spots where snow or ice on the road may be worse.
  • Never use cruise control in snow or when there’s a chance of ice. It can cause your tires to spin faster when you hit a slick spot then fishtail your vehicle when the tires regain traction.

About using snow chains

  • Carry chains and know how to use them, including which wheels you need to put them on.
  • Near chain-up and removal areas, slow down even more and watch for people in the road.

  • If you have to pull over because conditions are too bad to go on, get as far off on the shoulder as safely possible, turn off your headlights and turn on your hazard lights.

Remember that your best bet for driving this season is to make sure your tires are winter ready. Last but not least, be flexible. Sometimes it makes the most sense to stop somewhere for a while or the night to wait out the weather.

Read the full series on all you need to know to drive safely on winter roads to find out how to avoid hydroplaning, how to drive when it’s icy or foggy, and real-time Western winter road conditions by state.

Sources for this article include: