How to Drive Safely in High Winds
The times to be cautious during high or gusting wind are when you’re driving a pickup, SUV, RV, van or bus; you’re towing or hauling; or you’re traveling on a multilane road with lots of large vehicles. The taller and broader the vehicle, the more surface area for wind to shove against. A big gust can force a truck or trailer suddenly into another lane or cause a rollover.
Also, if you have new tires or tall-tread-block tires like MTs, be aware that side-to-side movement from strong crosswinds may feel exaggerated.
To drive safely in high winds:
- Make sure your tires are properly inflated for best traction.
- Leave more time and slow down.
- If blowing dust or driving rain are factors, turn on your headlights to improve visibility.
- Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel.
- Compensate by steering slightly against a consistent side wind.
- Don’t overcorrect if you get blown off course by a short gust.
- Make steering corrections when driving from areas protected from wind to open areas. Be extra vigilant on bridges, overpasses and open straightaways where wind can spike.
- Be prepared for unpredictable gusts when driving through underpasses, road cuts between hills and tunnels.
- Watch for debris in the road.
- Give other high-profile vehicles, like semis, a lot of room.
- Pull over someplace safe if conditions become dangerous.
- Once you’re at your destination, park away from trees and power lines.
Tire Performance in Strong Wind
High wind causes a vehicle to lift a bit, which reduces the necessary friction between your tires and the pavement. A really large surface, like the side of a fifth wheel, can act like a sail on a sailboat. A wind gust can suddenly pick up such a trailer and force it into another lane or off the road, especially if the blacktop is wet, which also reduces traction.
This effect is exaggerated when tires aren’t fully inflated or when you’re carrying a load. There’s more roll in the tire sidewall and your handling won’t be as responsive.
Be extra vigilant when you have new tires or tires with high lug-to-tread ratio and tall tread blocks, like all-terrain or mud tires. Such tires have more squirm in wind gusts, much like a skyscraper will sway more in high wind than a short building.
Driving in High Winds
If you’re towing a trailer or fifth wheel, driving a lifted truck or RV or hauling a heavy load, consider waiting out the conditions. Before you leave, check your state’s travel advisories. Travel may be not recommended or even be prohibited depending on vehicle type.
The National Weather Service also puts out alerts, including wind advisories. Weather warnings are available by county and zone (scroll down) and updated every few minutes.
The most important thing to remember is to slow down. You’ll have more time to react if you get blown sideways or another driver does.
Driving in Rain? How to Avoid Hydroplaning and Other Tips
The most dangerous rainy driving conditions are during a downpour, right? Nope. It’s actually the most risky during the first 10 minutes of a light rain.
There’s always some engine oil and grease buildup on paved roads, which will float on water. Any time it rains, road surfaces will be slick, but especially so at the beginning of a rain shower before some of the oily residue is washed away. Rainy conditions can actually be as slippery as driving on ice.
Be especially aware during the first rain after a dry summer (when oil has been collecting on the asphalt for a long time) and the first few hours of a fresh rain. Follow these driving tips.
- Allow more time to get where you’re going if it’s raining or it’s forecasted.
- Turn on your headlights so you can see better and others can see you better, too.
- Slow down. If you drive 35 mph or slower, you’re less likely to hydroplane because your tires get more traction on wet pavement at lower speeds. Lowering your speed will also give you enough time to react to standing water, sudden traffic slowdowns, disabled cars and any debris that’s been blown into the road.
- Give yourself twice as much stopping distance between you and the vehicle ahead.
- Don’t use cruise control. It can cause your tires to spin faster if you start to hydroplane. Then you could fishtail and lose steering control when tires regain traction.
- Don’t drive through water flowing across the road even if you’re going slow. A car can be swept away by as little as 12 inches of water.
- Try to drive in the tire tracks left by the cars in front of you. They’ve done some of the work of scattering water for you.
- Avoid hard braking, sudden acceleration, and sharp or quick turns.
- Stay in your lane. Lane changes and passing are bad ideas when visibility is poor and stopping distance is twice what you need on a dry road.
- Avoid puddles and standing water. Driving through several inches of water at a high speed can cause you to hydroplane. It could also splash water into your engine and stall it. If you do drive through a puddle, check that your brakes are working properly by tapping them gently a few times afterward.
What Is Hydroplaning?
Hydroplaning is when your tires lose contact with the road and start rolling on top of a thin film of water. It can happen any time a tire can't channel away water fast enough to maintain proper contact with the road. It’s not just driving through standing water that puts you at risk. When it’s raining heavily or you’re driving on worn tread, it’s also risky.
When tire tread is in good condition, the grooves do the job of giving water on the road a place to go and ejecting it as the tire rolls. Assuming you’re driving at a safe speed, you’ll have plenty of rubber in contact with the asphalt to keep enough traction.
But when tread depth is shallow because the tire is worn, the grooves aren’t as deep. Less water gets scattered by the grooves, and the vehicle may start to hydroplane. It can also happen if you’re driving too fast for the conditions, even if your tires are in good shape.
What It Feels Like
Behind the wheel, hydroplaning feels like the vehicle is floating or veering in a direction on its own. When this happens you’ve lost braking and steering control.
Sometimes not all four wheels are involved. If your drive wheels hydroplane, there might be an increase in your speedometer and engine RPMs (revolutions per minute) as your tires begin to spin. If the back wheels hydroplane, your car’s rear end will begin to veer sideways into a skid. If all four wheels hydroplane, the car will skid forward in a straight line.
What to Do If You Hydroplane
It may be against your instincts, but the right response to getting out of a hydroplane skid is to immediately take your foot off the gas and wait it out. Do not brake or try to steer. Most hydroplane-related skids last for just a split second before your vehicle regains traction.
If you do brake when you start to roll on water, ease up on the brake until it’s over. If you drive a manual transmission, disengage the clutch as well.
Don’t slam on the brakes or yank the steering wheel since it could cause you to lose further control. It’s best to wait to brake until you're out of the skid.
If you have to brake to avoid crashing and have anti-lock brakes, brake normally. If your vehicle doesn’t have ABS, pump the brakes lightly. Gently steer in the direction you want the vehicle to go. You may need to correct the car’s course with very slight steering wheel movements a few times as you’re regaining traction, but don’t oversteer. All this happens in a matter of seconds or less.
Don’t Be a Statistic
According to the Federal Highway Administration, most weather-related auto crashes occur on wet pavement and during rainfall. Annually, 3,400 people are killed and more than 357,300 people are injured in crashes when it’s raining.
Maintaining your tires and driving with extra care when it rains can help keep you from hydroplaning and get you where you’re going safely.
Dealing with other hazardous conditions, like fog? Check out our article on driving in low visibility.
Important Notice: The information provided above is of a general nature gathered from a variety of resources deemed reasonably reliable. The operation of your vehicle, or the repair or replacement of your vehicle’s equipment, may be different than for a typical vehicle. Please consult your owner’s manual for specific warnings, notices, and other advice relative to the subjects addressed herein.
The Essential Summer Road Trip Checklist
How to Have a Happy, Safe Summer Road Trip
So you’re hitting the road for your favorite campsite, fishing hole, theme park or beach rental. Here are 17 summer driving reminders to keep you, your passengers and fellow travelers safer on highways and byways.
- Make sure your vehicle is safe and road-ready with this checklist.
- Buckle up every time.
- Put kids 13 and younger in the back seat. No exceptions.
- Inflate tires properly. Proper inflation is important for safety and can save you up to 9 cents per gallon through better fuel efficiency.
- If you’re hauling, use a safety chain for trailers and inspect your hitch whenever you stop.
- Check blind zones before backing up. Trucks, SUVs, RVs and vans are more likely than cars to be involved in backovers.
- Remember to add clearance for trailers, campers, bike racks and roof racks. It’s easy to forget your extra height or length.
- Add following distance. A fully loaded vehicle needs more stopping time.
- Add extra following distance for motorcycles. They can stop much quicker, in shorter distances.
- Slow down if there’s a sudden cloudburst to avoid hydroplaning.
- Never leave kids or animals in an unattended car, even with windows down or A/C on.
- Lock your vehicle when exiting.
- Don’t drive distracted. Don’t text or check your phone. Check out cell phone laws by state.
- Watch for pedestrians and cyclists on the shoulder. Warm weather means there are more sharing the road.
- Before driving, don’t take medications, alcohol or drugs that will impair you.
- Pull over if you get drowsy.
- If you get stranded without a roadside assistance policy, call an on-demand roadside service.
How Do I Drive Safely in Fog?
Thick fog is a driving hazard in many areas of the Western U.S. In the Pacific Northwest, it comes up mostly in winter. In California’s Central Valley — where some roads have been called among the most dangerous in the world because of fog — the fog season starts with the first heavy rain in fall and goes until March.
How to Drive in Fog
Just like there are different types of snow, there are many types of fog. Oregon has freezing fog that can coat the road like black ice. California’s “tule fog” usually forms in low-lying areas that typically have bulrushes (tule, pronounced “too-lee”) growing in them. Tule fog can reduce visibility on a stretch of highway to only a few feet, while other areas are nearly clear.
Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/emdot, under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
This is true of fog anywhere: You can be driving along with enough visibility and then suddenly go through a patch where you can barely see the road.
When fog’s an issue, here are tips to keep you safer on your drive.
- Slow down and turn off your cruise control. Most crashes happen because the driver’s going too fast for weather conditions.
- Drive with enough stopping space so you can stop in the distance you can see.
- Don’t use high-beam headlights. They won't shine through the fog but just reflect the light back in your eyes, making it worse for you and other drivers. Use low-beams.
- In really dense fog, use front fog lights in addition to your low-beams if you have them. NEVER drive using only your parking or fog lights. It’s illegal and unsafe. Use rear fog lights if you have them when visibility is less than around 300 feet.
- Fog lights should be turned off when visibility is normal. They can be distracting for oncoming drivers.
- Oregon law says fog lights must be turned off when within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle and within 350 feet when following another vehicle.
- Minimize distractions. Turn off music and don’t talk on your cellphone, so you can listen for traffic you might not be able to see.
- Keep your headlights clean. Get in the habit of wiping them off whenever you fill your gas tank.
- Keep the windshield clear and use the defroster to avoid fogged windows.
- Keep on the alert for slow-moving or stopped vehicles. Slow down more when you see red taillights ahead.
- Avoid using your hazard lights while moving — other drivers may think you’ve stopped.
- Use the right edge of the road, white fog line or roadside reflectors as a guide to stay in your lane.
- In Oregon, a Dense Fog Advisory is issued when visibility is reduced to less than one-quarter mile. Check www.TripCheck.com.
- Be patient. Don’t change lanes or pass other vehicles unless you really have to, and NEVER try to pass long lines of traffic in fog.
- Don’t creep along; somebody else may crash into you. If visibility is extremely poor, exit the freeway or find a safe place to pull over. Some highways in California have signs that estimate road visibility and a 3-2-1 countdown pattern of reflective pavement markers to help motorists take exit ramps in heavy fog.
- If you need to stop and there’s no nearby exit, pull off the pavement as far as safely possible. Turn off your lights, set the emergency brake and take your foot off the brake to be sure your taillights aren’t lit up. Turn on your emergency flashers. Wait it out until conditions improve.
- Never stop in the travel lanes. If you can’t pull over, go slow and sound the horn occasionally.
What You Should Know about Fog Lights
Fog lights are designed to be used at low speed in fog, heavy mist, snow and other poor-visibility situations. They’re different from daytime running lights. They are an extra pair of lights mounted low on the vehicle, with the thinking that fog doesn’t settle on the road surface but hovers 12 to 18 inches above it. They aim light into this layer of fog-free air. They also point to the right enough that the driver can see the solid, white “fog line” at the road edge as a guide.
Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki
The rules on using auto fog lights — also known as fog lamps — vary by state. The main thing to know: you can’t use fog lights in a way that creates glare for other drivers. They have to be pointed and used so they won’t interfere with visibility for another driver within 25 feet. Here are specifics.
Basic Fog Light Rules for Western States
Each year, over 38,700 vehicle crashes occur in fog. Over 600 people are killed and more than 16,300 people are injured in these crashes annually. Treat low visibility driving with respect.
17 Must-Know Tips That Will Make You a Better Defensive Driver
Even the most-skilled driver, with a solid safety record, is still at risk for a car accident. Anticipating potential road hazards is the key to defensive driving. In addition to protecting life and limb, it can potentially lower your insurance bill and help you avoid tickets.
You can’t control bad road conditions, distracted drivers, people under the influence or other unexpected situations. You can, though, increase your odds of staying clear of such hazards with this list of 17 defensive driving tips. They key takeaways are:
- Assume other drivers will do the unexpected.
- Keep your full attention on the road.
- Make sure your brakes and tires are in good working order.
Defensive Driving Safety Tips
- Expect other drivers to do the unpredictable, for example, running a red light, backing out without looking or veering into your lane.
- Ignore the constant distractions in your own car, for instance, text message pings, crying babies, eating and drinking, smoking, turning to look at passengers, adjusting the stereo and putting on makeup. Leave your cellphone in your pocket, your purse, your backpack or the glove compartment, and save the snacks and makeup for home or your destination.
- Plan your route before you put the car into gear. Load your destination into your navigation system or check the map before you start.
- Obey traffic laws, including seat belts, stop signs and speed limits. Give yourself enough time to get where you’re going so you don’t feel pressured into unsafe driving.
- Look ahead and keep your eyes moving. Watch the road for potholes and debris, scan the shoulder, check your rearview and side mirrors and be alert to brake lights ahead.
- Adjust your speed and following distance when the weather calls for it. A heat wave means there will be overheating vehicles, more tire failures, and more people out and about. Winter weather will create slick conditions that increase your stopping distance. Be extra vigilant and follow these guidelines for driving in rain, snow, ice and fog.
- Plan for unexpected changes in traffic speed in construction zones.
- Don’t rubberneck. Instead, focus on keeping clear of all those who are gawking around you.
- If someone is tailgating you, slow down enough to give them room to pass.
- 10. Keep an eye out for animals. Certain times of the day and year are more dangerous due to wildlife. The deer rutting season can start in September and usually peaks in mid-November, though it can stretch into the winter months. During this time, bucks aren’t as aware of traffic. Baby animals and juvenile raptors, who aren’t savvy about highways, are a factor in spring and summer. Go slower at night to watch for animals that get caught in the headlights in the road.
- Give cyclists plenty of room and don’t pass them when there is oncoming traffic or on blind corners. Cyclists may swerve into your lane due to a wind gust or to avoid debris.
- Be the one who lets the other driver go first. If you arrive at an intersection at the same time, wait a few seconds before moving through. Even though it may be your turn to go, other drivers may not properly yield.
- Make it easy for other drivers to know your intentions. Stay in your lane rather than trying to gain a few seconds or minutes by passing. Always use turn signals. Tap the brakes when you see traffic slowing ahead to alert drivers behind you that there’s a slowdown.
- Be extra alert during nights and weekends. Driving under the influence is most prevalent when the workweek is done.
- Talk to your teen about driving under the influence. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens. Drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
- Take a course. It will not only improve your driving, it might reduce your auto insurance cost. If you’ve gotten a traffic citation, completing defensive driving training can sometimes get it dismissed, reduce points on your license and keep your insurance rate from going up. The National Safety Council offers online training. Many insurance companies offer educational programs for new drivers in exchange for discounts. Check with your insurer to see what will qualify you for reduced premiums or your local court to confirm approved coursework.
- Maintain your vehicle’s most important safety gear: your brakes and tires. If you do need to stop suddenly, you don’t want to find out the hard way that your brake pads are worn or your tire tread is too thin to provide traction. (Les Schwab Tires does free visual inspections of both without an appointment.)
Defensive driving is a series of hundreds of choices you make about your own driving behavior every time you get behind the wheel. Be the one who watches out for the other driver. Spotting risks ahead of time requires your full attention. With practice, it soon becomes second nature.
14 Items to Put in Your Winter Road Trip Safety Kit
If you’re going over the hills, through the woods or over a mountain pass during wintry months, do yourself a favor. Put a winter road trip kit in your vehicle, just in case.
Icy roads and traffic jams in cold weather aren’t predictable. Preparing in advance may save you some misery...and keep you safer in bad driving conditions.
Here Are Items to Put in a Winter Road Trip Safety Kit to Keep in Your Vehicle During the Cold Months.
- Plastic storage tub for keeping it all together and dry. And easy stowing when warmer weather returns.
- Headlamp. It could be not only snowing but dark when you realize you’re going to have to put on the snow chains.
- Speaking of tire chains, don’t forget them. If you have several sets of chains for several vehicles, putting the right chains in a dedicated winter safety kit for each car will keep you from being stranded with the wrong chains when you need them. (Here’s a video on how to install chains.)
- Reflective gear. A fluorescent safety vest with reflective strips can be bought at most big box home improvement stores. Orange warning triangles are available at most auto parts stores.
- Windshield ice scraper, in case of freezing rain, sleet or heavy snow.
- Waterproof jacket with a hood and rainpants. You’ll be glad to have that hood to keep snow from going down your back if you need to put on chains.
- Something to sit or kneel on when installing chains. Snowy or icy pavement is not a comfortable surface. A small tarp or even a piece of cardboard will really help.
- Gloves. Mittens won’t do you much good if you’re installing snow chains. Get gloves that are water resistant.
- Beanie or baseball cap. A knit hat that covers your ears will keep your head warm. Or a cap with a bill will keep snow from hitting your face.
- A towel to use after snow chain installation and removal, to put on the seat to keep it dry from your wet outer layers.
- Water. If there’s an accident on the pass you could be idled for hours. It’s a good idea to carry some water.
- Snacks. Keep a few energy or protein bars with a long shelf life in your kit.
- Kid items. Long road delays+hungry kids = nightmare. An extra diaper, a deck of cards and bag of snacks won’t take up much room and could make things a lot more tolerable.
- Pet items. A foldable fabric water bowl, spare leash and treats will be rewarded with lots of wags.
And one last thing: keep waterproof shoes handy inside your vehicle. Driving to your destination with wet feet in winter is no fun. Bring along the galoshes, just in case.
Want more tips on winter road safety? See 19 Winter Driving Resources You Can’t Do Without.
Did you know you can get a free pre-trip safety check for your vehicle at Les Schwab? Find out more here.
Shop for Winter Tires
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.
Shop for Winter Tires
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.
Shop for Winter Tires
Do These 10 Things to Stay Safe on Winter Roads [Infographic]
After a few months of warm weather, we sometimes forget how to adjust to winter conditions. Follow these 10 tips when you head out on snowy or icy roads.
- Slow down. Leave early so you won’t be rushing.
- Skid smart. Learn how to handle your car so you don’t find yourself skidding. Here are some tips for driving on icy roads.
- Skid 101. Winter driving classes can help. Find one in your area.
- Be prepared. Road delays and breakdowns happen. Put together a winter road trip safety kit and keep it in your car until spring.
- Have patience. Maybe you don’t need to run those errands right now. Wait for road conditions to get better.
- Shoulder safety. If you have to pull over, get off the road as far as possible, turn off your headlights and turn on your hazards.
- Don’t cruise. Cruise control can cause your tires to spin too fast on slick roads, which will decrease your control.
- Passing precaution. Allow extra distance for yourself when you’re passing or just hang out where you are.
- Be seen. Use your low-beam headlights even during the day. Overcast skies don’t make for good daytime visibility.
- Keep your distance. Make sure you give yourself space from the car ahead of you. You need at least 3 times more space on a snowy road and at least 10 times more space on an icy road to stop as on a dry road.
- Bonus tip! Keep the gas tank at least half full. If you run into car trouble and need to sit by the side of the road, you’ll want to keep your engine running to stay warm.
Do you have to go out right after that snowstorm? Here’s our advice for safer driving in snow.
Shop for Winter Tires
Does Adding Weight in the Back Improve My Car’s Traction in Snow?
Should you add weight in your trunk or the bed of your pickup to improve winter traction? For best traction you want a greater percentage of the vehicle’s weight centered over the drive wheels, the wheels where the engine sends the power to propel the car. Basically:
- Do add weight in the back of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle
- Don’t add weight to the back of a front-wheel-drive vehicle
- Don’t add weight in the back of an all-wheel-drive vehicle
- Consider adding weight to the back of a 4WD in some circumstances
Here are the details.
Weight in the Back Helps for RWDs
When there’s snow on the road and you’re finding that you don’t have enough traction to get up hills, you fishtail going around curves or your tires spin when you put your vehicle into gear with only light pressure on the gas, it’s a sign that you could use more weight.
A pickup truck is built to carry cargo, but today lots of truck drivers don’t routinely haul anything in their beds. An empty cargo bed means some of the weight the truck was designed to carry on the rear axle for balanced handling is missing and you’re getting less than ideal traction from the rear wheels. It’s a good thing to add extra mass.
Other RWD Vehicles
A rear-wheel drive car or SUV has a nearly even weight balance between front and back, with each tire carrying about an equal share of the vehicle’s load. Placing some weight in the trunk over the rear axle may help a bit with snow traction, but not if you have a car fully loaded with gear and people in back. In that instance, you’ve already got a greater percentage of weight over the drive wheels and you don’t need to add anything else.
How Much Weight?
Figuring out the right weight to carry could take a bit of trial and error to see what works best for your vehicle and driving. Below are general rules of thumb.
Of course, never add more payload than the safe weight limit listed in your owner’s manual under “standard” and “maximum” vehicle payloads.
Type of Vehicle Suggested Added Weight ½-ton pickup 240-300 lbs. ¾- to 1-ton pickup 300-400 lbs. Sedan/SUV/CUV 100 lbs.
Will the Added Weight Make It Harder to Stop?
It may seem intuitive that a heavier car will mean longer stopping distance, due to added momentum. Not necessarily.
The added mass (no more than a few hundred pounds) isn’t enough to make a significant difference in braking. The weight flattens out the tires, increasing the size of the contact patch, the area where the rubber meets the road. The tires become less round and have more gripping surface, which helps a vehicle slow down faster.
Best Materials to Use
Tube-shaped sandbags are the most popular. They come in 60- to 70-pound bags at about $5 a pop at home improvement and hardware stores.
Besides sand, common materials for weight are drainage gravel, potting soil, cat litter and rock salt. You can sprinkle any of these on the ground for traction if you ever get stuck in snow. Dump soil in the garden come spring for new plantings.
Some pickup drivers leave their fifth wheel hitches in the bed during winter, which can add roughly 250 pounds.
There are also reusable, water-bladder traction aids for all types of vehicles that range in price from $70-200.
Even just keeping a full gas tank can help. A filled 16-gallon tank can add over 100 pounds.
- Plastic mesh, burlap and plastic bags will start to disintegrate over the course of a winter. You risk rust if the material in the bag collects moisture then leaks and comes in contact with metal. Buy double-wrapped bags to prevent this. You’ll also potentially extend the life of the weight to several seasons.
- DON’T just let a truck bed fill up with snow to provide weight: When you’re driving it will fly out behind you, causing visibility problems for following vehicles.
- DON’T use cement blocks or railroad ties, which could become dangerous projectiles in a wreck.
- If the roads are usually dry with only occasional slick winter conditions, you can just add weights when there’s weather, and keep the bags stored when not, for best gas mileage.
Where Should I Put It?
Sandbags should be centered over the rear axle, or as close to it as possible. This means in the trunk or cargo area as close to the rear wheels as you can in RWD cars and SUVs and right next to the wheel wells in a pickup. It’s not a good idea to wedge the weight by the pickup tailgate, since this could lighten the front end too much, causing handling instability.
Added Weight Won’t Help Traction for FWD or AWD Vehicles
In a front-wheel drive, about 65 percent of the weight of the engine is over the front axle. This is a good thing for snow traction. The weight flattens the shape of the front tires a bit, even if they have the same tire pressure as the rear. This increases the friction between the road and the tires on the wheels that are responsible for moving the car. More friction means more road grip.
Adding weight to the trunk could actually cause problems with FWD cars, especially if you’ve got the whole family and luggage loaded. A lot more weight in the rear can create a teeter-totter effect, with the back weight making the front comparatively too light for proper grip.
More weight won’t improve traction for all-wheel-drive vehicles either. If slipping or skidding is detected, 90 percent or more of an AWD engine’s power will be sent to whichever wheels have tires that are getting better grip. If there’s more weight in the rear, it could lighten the front too much, causing less traction there. The engine could compensate by sending more power to those wheels, which could cause them to spin.
Plus, AWD adds significant weight to some models of cars, which also helps with traction.
Do I Need Weight in the Back for My 4WD? Maybe.
Automatic transmission four-wheel drive vehicles do well on winter traction without extra weight, so long as the tire tread is in good condition. If you have a manual transmission, if you’re driving a lot in icy conditions or on hills, or if you’re spinning out even when only lightly hitting the gas, some weight in the back may still help.
Having the Right Tires Matters More
Tires in good condition are a much more important factor than weight for starting, cornering, accelerating and stopping in snow. Tires without enough tread will spin or skid on snow whether you have additional weight in the rear or not. Even if you have an AWD or automatic 4WD vehicle you won’t have safe traction if you’ve got worn tires.
But if you have good tires and are driving a RWD car or SUV, a pickup truck or a manual 4WD vehicle, adding sandbags to the back can give you some additional traction in winter conditions.
See our winter driving resource list for more tips on making it safely through the season.
How to Drive Safely on Ice: Top Tips for Keeping Your Car on the Road
When icy roadways are involved, the most important thing you can do to avoid an auto accident is not drive at all. Even if you have to reschedule that key meeting at work or delay that trip you’ve had planned for so long, think about staying home when conditions are bad or forecast to get worse.
If you’re caught trying to get somewhere and the highway becomes better for hockey than driving, here are 17 general tips for driving safely on ice. Of course, you should always carefully review your owner’s manual for any warnings, notices, or other advice specific to your vehicle.
Traction on Icy Roads
- Have the right winter tires, properly inflated. Winter tires are worth it, especially if you might be encountering ice. See why in this video that shows stopping ability of winter tires compared to all-season tires.
- Carry chains and if the road gets slick, use them.
- Don’t be overconfident about traction just because you have a four-wheel or all-wheel drive. These vehicles don’t stop or steer better on ice than regular old two-wheel drives. Even snow tires may not give you full traction on ice.
Ease up on the Gas
- Slow way down. If you do go into a skid you’re less likely to do your vehicle or yourself damage.
- Accelerate and apply brakes slowly.
- Increase your following distance. You’ll need ten times the stopping distance compared to what you’re used to on dry pavement.
- Don’t even think about passing other vehicles. And if someone tries to pass you, gently steer to the shoulder as far as you safely can to give more room.
How to Tell If the Road’s Icing Up
- Don’t use your car thermometer as the only judge of how slippery the road is. Air temperature warms quicker than pavement. So even when your thermometer says it’s above freezing the roadway may still be frozen. Look for ice on your wipers, side view mirrors, road signs or trees as other signs that extra caution is needed.
- Avoid driving at night or very early in the morning when it’s coldest.
- You can’t always see ice coming. Black ice is thin ice that actually looks like water on the road. Again, watch for signs of icing up elsewhere.
- Be extra vigilant on bridges, overpasses and ramps. They’re the first to freeze and the last to thaw. They get colder than asphalt because they’re concrete and there’s no insulation provided by the ground.
- Also be alert when you’re changing elevation. On mountain passes, the worst patches of road are often the icy spots in shaded corners.
- If you notice rain or snow turning to freezing rain, crank the defroster on high. Don’t let ice stick on your windshield. It’s unsafe to try to see through a small part of the windshield and just keep going. Pull over someplace safe and scrape it off.
- How to drive downhill in slick conditions: if you have anti-lock brakes (ABS) start at the top of the hill as slowly as possible, leaving your vehicle in normal drive gear. Use light, steady pressure on the brake pedal to maintain the right speed. This allows your braking system to maintain traction. If you don’t have ABS, start slowly and keep it slow by lightly pumping the brakes.
- Never use cruise control in icy conditions. It can cause your wheels to spin at different speeds and may make you lose steering control.
- If your vehicle suddenly feels like it’s floating, take your foot off the gas but don’t slam on your brakes, which can cause you to skid.
- The best way to be safe while driving in icy conditions is to be patient. Let vehicles that tailgate you go by and take your time.
Be a Hero with a Summer Road Trip Safety Kit
Picture yourself as the only one with jumper cables at the boat launch when someone has a dead battery. Or looking like a genius when you bring out a deck of cards to keep restless kids busy while you change a flat tire.
Being road-trip ready means more than just carrying a charged cell phone with your roadside assistance number handy.
Keeping a simple summer road trip safety kit in your vehicle during the warm months will make your travel more carefree — and you just might save the day. Here’s what to have.
21 Items to Have in Your Summer Road Trip Safety Kit
- A clear, plastic storage bin to keep everything together and spot items more easily
- First-aid kit
- Fire extinguisher, rated for Class B and Class C fires
- Spare tire, properly inflated, along with the jack, lug wrench and some work gloves
- A ground mat or towel to use on hot pavement if you have to change a tire
- Tire pressure gauge
- Extra windshield wiper fluid in case you go through a “bug storm”
- Rags for keeping your windshield clean, or in case you need to get under the hood and get at hot or oily areas
- Three road flares, orange safety triangles or battery-operated warning lights. If you have to change a flat tire, place them 50 feet apart to warn oncoming traffic. Available at auto parts stores.
- A fluorescent safety vest with reflective strips to improve your visibility if you’re stranded on the side of a busy highway. Sold at most big-box home improvement stores.
- A baseball cap or visor to provide some sun protection if you get stuck in a place with no shade
- A reflective emergency blanket to use for shade. You can buy one at most sporting goods or variety stores.
- Sunscreen, especially if you have small kids along
- Speaking of children, stow a travel board game or some playing cards, an extra diaper if needed, and long shelf-life snacks, like nuts, dried fruit, granola bars and protein bars. Such small things will help keep them occupied and more comfortable in case you’re waiting for roadside assistance.
- Wet wipes
- Pet items. A collapsible water bowl, spare leash and treats may come in handy.
- In addition to a water bottle for every person in your car, carry a gallon of drinking water. Bring even more if you have the dog along.
- Jumper cables
- Multitool or a mini toolkit with Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, adjustable wrench and pliers. These could be useful if you’re hauling a trailer or have gear racks.
- Headlamp with fresh batteries, because flat tires can happen after dark, and you’ll need your hands free
- Duct tape, for temporary repair of a hose leak
When you’re unprepared, an auto breakdown during hot months can be just as hairy as getting stranded in winter. Your summer road trip safety kit will make getting through it a whole lot easier.
A winter road trip safety kit is also a good idea. See what belongs in yours.
Check the Road Conditions Before Your Trip
Make the most of your travels with road cams, mileage calculators, scenic byway routes, and weather forecasts from your local Department of Transportation.
Road Trip Checklist
Free Pre-Trip Safety Inspection
Taking a little time to make sure everything’s in good working order before you hit the road can mean the difference between the trip of a lifetime and being stranded.
Stop by for a free pre-trip safety check on the following, no appointment necessary. Les Schwab will help you get where you’re going.
- Tire pressure check
- Tire tread depth check
- Visual alignment check
- Brake check
- Shock/strut check
- Battery check
7 Things To Do When Your Car is Stuck in Snow
A blizzard is on the way. You’ve stocked up on candles, hot cocoa and batteries. But what if you have to leave the house? Do you know how to get your car out of the snow if you get stuck?
From driving techniques to using props, here are seven ways to get your car moving again, plus some advice about how to prepare for a snowstorm.
Before It Snows
There are two key things to do BEFORE the storm arrives to be sure you can get your vehicle back on the road after a big snow. They can make the difference between looking like a genius and having huge hassles.
Have the right tires in the right condition.
If you live somewhere where storms can bring a foot or two of snow at once, you should definitely be running snow tires, not all-season tires. (Find out how to choose snow tires.) Before the snow starts falling, get your air pressure checked and make sure your tire tread’s in the proper condition.
Keep a snow shovel in your vehicle.
Not only will this come in handy for you, but you may also be a hero to those who are caught unprepared. (Speaking of preparedness, here’s a winter safety kit checklist of other items to keep in your car so you’re ready for pretty much any winter road condition.)
Before You Turn Your Vehicle On
Turn off traction control.
Both drive wheels will need to have traction for you to get unstuck. These are the front tires on a front-wheel-drive and the rear tires on rear-wheel drive, AWD and 4WD vehicles. Turn off the car’s traction control system (usually with a button somewhere on the dashboard or console).
Clear a path around the tires.
- Starting with the drive tires, dig the snow out from in front, underneath and in back. Clear a path long enough for wheels to move forward and back a few feet, assuming you have that much space on either end of the car. Remove any snow around the tires that’s higher than the ground clearance of the car. Dig out snow from under the front of your car. If you’re high-centered, with snow or ice under the vehicle blocking your exit, you won’t be going anywhere.
If you don’t have a shovel handy, try using a screwdriver, ice scraper or another tool to at least break up any ice that’s formed below the tires. A rougher surface area provides more traction.
- Also dig out the tailpipe before you start the engine. People have lost their lives from carbon monoxide building up inside a vehicle when they didn’t know the exhaust pipe was blocked.
1. The Forward-and-Back Technique
Start your vehicle, roll down your window and take off your hat or earmuffs so you can hear clearly. Even better, stick your head out the window to watch your front tire. You’ll get the best traction by straightening the wheel, so do this as much as your parking situation allows.
Put your vehicle in the lowest gear. If you’ve got a four-wheel drive SUV or pickup, engage the low-range gearing. Move forward just a bit.
Now slowly back up. Don’t rev the engine. Stop, then put it in forward and apply a little gas. This can tamp down loose snow and maybe give you enough traction to get out.
Listen carefully. If you hear any tire spinning, take your foot off the gas immediately.
2. The Braking Technique
If your vehicle didn’t move at all or a tire is spinning, try braking while at the same time that you’re giving a little gas. This should decrease the spinning and transfer some power to that wheel.
If you have a front-wheel-drive and there aren’t curbs or other cars blocking your way, try turning the wheels slightly the other way and see if that gives you more traction.
Don’t try this braking method for more than a few seconds. It can overheat your brakes which can compromise braking until they’ve cooled down.
3. Find Some Muscle
Sometimes a push from a few Good Samaritans will do the trick. Be 100 percent sure you use only the gear that keeps pushers out of harm’s way (Forward gear only if they're pushing your vehicle from behind.). Ask your helpers to push on the count of three as you gently apply the gas.
4. Use Snow Chains
If you’re still stuck and you have snow chains, it’s time to chain up. That almost always does the trick.
5. The Rocking Technique
If you don’t have chains, and your vehicle is moving forward some but then stopping, try “rocking” back and forth between forward and reverse gears. Give it a little gas just as the vehicle starts to swing forward out of reverse. This may give you enough momentum to drive out. But be aware that this kind of rapid shifting can overload your transmission. Only try it a few times or you could end up with expensive damage. It will be much cheaper to just call a tow truck.
6. Add Traction with Sand, Kitty Litter or Cardboard
If you’re still spinning, you can put something on the ground to add traction that won’t damage your tires. Try sprinkling sand or kitty litter in front of the drive tires (and behind them if you’re planning on backing out).
DON’T EVER USE ANTIFREEZE TO TRY TO MELT SNOW AND ICE. Antifreeze is toxic to children, pets, and wild animals, and it can find its way through storm drains to waterways where it can poison marine animals. Plus, in some states, it’s illegal to pour antifreeze on the ground. Using salt as a deicer is also a bad idea for the environment — and your vehicle. It’s corrosive to metal (like the undercarriage of your car) and becomes less effective below 25 degrees Fahrenheit anyway.
Another way to get traction is to lay cardboard, plywood, two-by-fours or even your vehicle’s floor mats down in front of the drive tires (or behind them if you’re starting in reverse). If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you can use weeds or branches from the side of the road. But caution: Clear the area and go very easy when accelerating. Sometimes the wheels can make whatever you put down for traction shoot out. And be aware your mats could get ruined. Again, it’s probably less out of your pocketbook to get a tow truck.
7. Let a Bit of Air Out of Your Tires
The last resort is to let a little air out of your tires, just enough so they look visibly lower. Only do this if you have a way to get them quickly refilled someplace close by. Driving on underinflated tires puts more rubber in contact with the ground and will give you better traction for a short distance. But driving this way isn’t safe and it could damage your tires if it’s a long way to the filling station.
Be Prepared When Your Car Does Break Free
If you’re in forward gear, don’t stop right away but drive somewhere you can see there’s less snow and you can safely stop. If you’re in reverse, keep backing up for a few yards, then take your foot off the gas. The snow will stop you. Next, put it in low gear and gently accelerate forward in the tracks you’ve made, just fast enough to break through where you were stuck.
Once You’re Unstuck from the Snow
Re-engage your traction control system, if you turned it off. If you engaged your low-range 4WD, disengage. Make sure your radiator has air flow. Snow packed into the front of the grille can cause engine overheating.
Go immediately to the closest service station and refill your tires if you let any air out.
If you notice a vibration in your steering wheel, check for snow packed into your wheels. Pull over someplace safe and knock the snow or ice out with an ice scraper or shovel.
Want a complete list of resources for winter driving safety? Here’s our guide for safe driving in winter, from prepping your vehicle to driving in bad conditions.
Important Notice: The information provided above is from a variety of resources deemed reasonably reliable. The operation of your vehicle, or the repair or replacement of your vehicle’s equipment, may be different than for a typical vehicle. Please consult your owner’s manual for specific warnings, notices, and other advice relative to the above.
What You Need to Know About Road Conditions Right Now
If you’re traveling by car this winter, you’re going to want to bookmark the following guide for Western states, so you can find out what you need to know about road conditions right now. See current road reports, road cams, chain requirements, weather reports and winter storm warnings for California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Guide to Real-time Road Conditions in Western States
For more on winter road safety, see our guide 19 Winter Driving Resources You Can’t Do Without.