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
1. Expect other drivers to do the unpredictable, for example, running a red light, backing out without looking or veering into your lane.
2. 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.
3. Plan your route before you put the car into gear. Load your destination into your navigation system or check the map before you start.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Plan for unexpected changes in traffic speed in construction zones.
8. Don't rubberneck. Instead, focus on keeping clear of all those who are gawking around you.
9. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Be extra alert during nights and weekends. Driving under the influence is most prevalent when the workweek is done.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
Do I Really Need Brake Service?
Brake problems can be confusing to figure out. Some are harmless with little to no repair needed, such as dust in the braking system that causes squeaking. Other issues indicate likely problems with different car parts, such as a worn belt causing a shrill squeal. Not every sound, sensation or smell means you're due for a brake overhaul, but some do.
In order to diagnose, a mechanic will want to know:
- The nature of noises you're noticing. Are they squealing, squeaking or grinding? Does it sound metallic?
- Exactly where the noises are coming from.
- What causes a noise to start and stop: Revving the engine while in park? Braking? Accelerating? Going over a bump?
- If there are any smells.
- If you feel a vibration.
- Any changes in brake pedal firmness.
No need to worry about taking the time and paying the money for a brake job before you know whether you need it. Here are some symptoms and their possible causes.
Squealing, Squeaking or Grinding
A continuous grinding squeal when you're underway that came on suddenly could just be a rock caught between the brake pad and the disc. Some types of brake pad material can cause harmless squeaking. The sound could also be from moisture or dust in the braking system that isn't doing damage. Or hardware may be in need of lube.
But a constant, high-pitched screech coming from the wheel area while you're driving, which came on gradually and stops while you brake, is likely the brake pad wear indicator. This is a metal tab that contacts the rotor surface once pads are reaching their minimum. This means you're due for service.
If it's a shrill squeal coming from the engine area that varies with engine speed, it could be a worn belt (alternator, power steering, fan, water pump, A/C) that's slipping on a pulley. However, squealing could also mean a failing alternator or bearings. It may take an expert to tell the difference. Squeaking sounds coming from the wheel area can also indicate worn shocks or other suspension parts.
If you've got drum brakes in the rear, excessive brake dust or badly worn shoes can cause grinding sounds.
Vibration or Pull
An unbalanced tire can cause vibration in your steering wheel. It costs little to nothing to fix.
Vibration in the brake pedal or steering wheel felt only during braking points to a brake system issue, such as an uneven rotor surface. If you've just gotten brake service, it may be that the rotors weren't resurfaced. Rough braking could also be from the brake caliper not releasing back into a full off position when you let up on the pedal. A less likely cause is a worn suspension part.
Steering pull to one side during braking could be a stuck caliper, bad brake hose, worn-out brake pads or loose suspension parts. If you're noticing a vibration right after you've had a tire rotation or seasonal swap-out, it may be related to tire rebalancing.
A brake pedal that seems too soft when you hit it can mean either air in the hydraulic system, worn-out brake pads or a fluid leak somewhere in the brake system.
A pungent smell could be from oil burning, especially if you've recently had an oil change and some overflowed, or you might be driving with the parking brake engaged.
But if the smell is coming from near your wheels ? especially in hot conditions while you're driving in the mountains ? it's possible you've been riding the brakes and they've overheated. Or, a brake pad or caliper could be stuck, which often comes along with smoke. (Stop immediately in a safe place and figure out what's going on so you don't have brake failure.)
Tips Before Getting Service
Ask questions, read your owner's manual and be aware of the following if brake servicing is recommended.
Be wary if the mechanic says you need brake service when you have 50 percent pads left. If your shop uses percentages to tell when brakes are due, wait until your pads are down to 15 to 20 percent before scheduling. (Les Schwab Tires measures brake pads in millimeters, not percentages. This helps us be more precise about when service is due.)
Find out what's included. Make sure they do a thorough inspection and get a written quote that includes pad and rotor measurements.
Ask if rotors should be resurfaced or replaced. This service is necessary if you've gone too long between brake servicing and grooves have formed on the surface, brake pad material has collected there causing rough braking or the rotor thickness has become uneven. The technician should measure using a micrometer and inform you of rotor thickness. If rotors are getting down to the minimum, it may be better to replace them.
Yes, brake fluid needs to be replaced. Draining old and adding new fluid extends brake component life. It's common for moisture to get into the brake system. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts and retains water. When water gets into this sealed system, there's more risk of corrosion of metal parts and poor braking.
Be cautious about cleaning and lubing. Today's brake systems typically don't need to be taken apart and washed. The exception is when you're experiencing brake squeal or squeaking when your pads still have plenty of life in them and no other cause is evident. It could be glazing, the brake pad's friction surface getting hardened from heat. In this instance, cleaning and lubing moving components can reduce noise and extend brake life.
Bottom line: Brake sounds, smells, vibration or a dashboard light are not things to guess about and hope you're right. But you're not in for an expensive repair job for every problem. Get them checked out pronto by a service shop you trust. (Les Schwab Tires does brake inspections for free.)
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.
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.
Lowering Suspension: Pros and Cons
Lowering your car or truck so it's closer to the ground is a popular way to customize your ride. Done right, it's a great look that also boosts handling performance. Done wrong, it could compromise handling, drivability and traction, reduce tire tread life and even damage parts.
Pluses and Minuses of Lowering Suspension
PROS CONS More road feel Reduced ride comfort Stiffer ride Impractical for rough roads Less roll when cornering Accelerated or uneven tire wear Better handling Chance of bottoming out Improved aerodynamics Potential rubbing on parts or tires Improved traction Can't use a standard jack Less rollover risk Cost Great looks Warranty issues
More road feel. A lowered suspension helps a driver be highly attuned to how their vehicle acts on different pavement as more of the vibrations from imperfections in the road surface come through the steering wheel.
Stiffer ride. With this setup, you have to have more rigid springs so the front or back of your vehicle won't bottom out over bumps or depressions. This is the driving experience many prefer, versus a cushier ride from, say, a luxury sedan.
Less lean in corners. The lean of a vehicle around a sharp turn is greatly reduced, because the shift of weight is less due to the lower center of gravity. The part of the vehicle on the outside of a turn stays more level with the inside. This lets a car settle more quickly into a turn and act more responsively.
Better handling. Another effect of being closer to the ground is improved responsiveness, more stability and grip at speed. Because lowering means getting stiffer springs, there is less weight transfer when you hit the gas or brake hard. This means you'll enjoy faster acceleration and quicker stops.
Less air drag. Lowered vehicles are more aerodynamic. There's less air hitting the wheels and tires (that are not streamlined shapes). This makes these cars faster. Some owners of low-stance vehicles also notice improved gas mileage. BUT, lowering a car too much will actually increase wind drag.
Less rollover risk. Lowered vehicles have a lower center of gravity, which decreases rollover risk when cornering.
Improved traction. Lowering generally means you'll put a plus-sized tire and wheel package on the vehicle. Such tires have shorter sidewalls, a larger contact patch (that keeps more rubber in contact with the road) and less roll around corners.
Good looks. Cars and trucks that have been lowered with custom wheels are attention-getters. It's a more aggressive and performance-oriented look that stands out in a crowd.
Less ride comfort. If you and your passengers are accustomed to a softer suspension that cushions impacts like bumps and potholes, you may think less of the ride comfort of a lower suspension. You may also notice increased road noise since you're closer to the pavement.
No go on rough roads. The lower clearance will not be your friend on rutted, rocky, washboard and potholed roads.
Uneven or accelerated tire wear. Lowering changes the geometry of your wheel-tire fitment. If it's done improperly, your car may have an alignment problem that results in premature or extreme wear patterns.
Bottoming out. Even an inch-and-a-half lower suspension can cause problems around corners, with slight potholes or on speed bumps. Traveling over the lip of a parking garage or starting up a driveway or ramp could cause the front of your vehicle to hit the pavement. Contact with the ground can cause serious damage to components underneath the car, like the exhaust system and oil pan.
If you ever need a tow truck, you may require a flat bed. Otherwise, there could be a problem with the back body of the vehicle dragging on the ground.
Potential rubbing on parts or tires. Poorly done or extreme lowering can cause suspension and steering parts to contact each other, the wheels or the tires. It could also cause tires to rub the body during turns or going over bumps.
Can't use a standard jack. If you get a flat tire, you may find out at an inconvenient time that there's not enough clearance to get the unit under the vehicle's frame.
Cost. Quality components and keeping correct alignment can get pricey. The lower you go, the more chance you'll need additional parts. For example, if coilovers (meaning coil spring over shock) are part of your new setup, you're likely looking at an outlay of $1,000 or more.
Warranty issues. You should check both your owner's manual and any manufacturer's or aftermarket warranty to determine if 1) the manufacturer advises against lowering your car, or 2) if lowering your car will void or adversely affect any warranty coverage you currently have.
Know This Before You Modify Your Suspension
Here's what to know before you go low.
- If it's higher performance you're after, you may need to lower a lot less than you think. It's easy to miss the mark and actually make your suspension worse. To be sure that components like struts and springs can do the work of keeping tires at the right angles, get expert help.
- Don't cut corners when it comes to shocks, struts or other components. You're making changes to the structure and balance of your vehicle. You don't want to risk failing parts.
- If you modify your vehicle in ways that aren't road legal, your insurer may not pay a claim for damage. Talk to your agent before you customize your ride and ask if your premiums will go up or policy terms change.
- Installing extreme aftermarket wheel-tire setups or suspension changes can result in steering, suspension or drivetrain problems that won't be covered by your vehicle warranty. Check to see if the modifications you're planning will result in denied warranty claims BEFORE installation.
- Get an alignment after you lower to ensure best handling and tire life.
- Take care while you get accustomed to how your new setup performs. With the much stiffer suspension, your vehicle may steer a little differently and won't absorb road shocks as well. A sudden hard brake or tight turn on a bumpy road could cause a loss of traction.
Any time you change your vehicle's OE (original equipment) suspension, you should be sure that you're not creating a setup that is either unsafe or is going to cause problems with other car functions. Like with many aftermarket customizations, it's about finding the right balance of safety, performance, looks, cost and drivability.
Not to Worry: 27 Tips for Safest Night Driving
Driving at night can be a travel delight. Your favorite playlist, the open road, a feeling of adventure?what could be better?
But night driving brings into play some serious safety issues. The overall nighttime crash rate is about one-and-a-half times the daytime rate. Night crashes are statistically more severe, with the fatality rate three to four times that of daylight crashes.
The main problem is lower visibility. Visual cues like pavement markings and road signs are harder to see. Your depth perception, ability to make out colors and peripheral vision are all worse at night. Older drivers can be especially challenged: A 50-year-old driver may need twice as much light to see as well as the average 30-year-old.
Another safety issue is fatigue. Our bodies are programmed to get sleepy when it's dark. If you are a parent taking advantage of young kids' sleep time to log travel miles, you may be fighting exhaustion.
Plus, it takes a lot more concentration to drive at night. Here are some tips for getting to your destination safely during your night travels.
Before Your Night Travel
1. Have the right tires mounted for the time of year, and make sure they're properly inflated.
2. Avoid having to change a flat after dark by checking your tires for wear. Uneven or too much tread wear makes tire failure more likely.
3. Adjust your headlight beams. The aim can get a bit off over time, when the assembly loosens or your vehicle suspension sags. Follow the instructions in your vehicle owner's manual or in this video.
4. Make sure your headlights are clean. If they look foggy or hazy, you can polish them in a few minutes with some toothpaste and car wax to get a lot more light on the road.
5. Clean your windshield. Glass with smudges or streaks on the inside or dirt on the outside make it even harder to see when it's dark. You'll also get tired quicker from straining to see.
6. Dirty mirrors can increase glare. Clean your side mirrors and adjust them slightly downward so you can keep glare from other cars' headlights out of your eyes.
While You're Underway
8. Turn your headlights on an hour before the sun goes down and keep them on an hour after dawn. This improves your visibility to other drivers when the sun is low in the sky.
9. Stay within the speed limit. You can't see as far at night. With your low beams on, you can only see a maximum of about 250 feet in front of you on unlit roads. You'll need that much or more to come to a stop, depending on your speed and the road conditions.
10. Keep alert by frequently checking all your mirrors. Staring straight ahead for long periods will strain your eyes and lower your attention level.
11. Don't fight drooping eyelids or wait until you're nodding off to stop. Do something to get your blood flowing and increase your attention, like doing a few stretches or taking a short walk. Get yourself a cup of coffee, or even take a short nap.
12. Any time you need to stop, pull as far over onto the shoulder as you safely can and turn on your hazard lights.
13. Clean your windshield whenever you make a pit stop or fill up your gas tank. Extra wiper fluid and a clean towel or some rags are good items to have in a road trip safety kit. Create one for summer and one for winter.
14. Increase your following distance. Know that feeling when someone is tailgating you with their headlights shining into your rear-view mirror? It's nerve-racking and the glare in your eyes can make it even harder to see potential problems ahead or by the roadside. Give yourself and others enough space to react.
15. Watch roadsides for the reflections of animals' eyes. Slow way down if you spot them. If you see one deer, there are likely others, so go slowly to be sure you're past them all.
16. Turn off interior lights. They can create glare that makes it harder to see the road.
17. Dim your dashboard lights.
18. Keep your car clear of cigarette smoke. It reduces vision.
19. Don't look directly into oncoming headlights. If light from a car coming the other way is blinding or creates glare, watch the white fog line on the right side of the road. You'll still be able to see the oncoming traffic through peripheral vision while staying in your lane.
20. Use high beams when there aren't oncoming cars and it's right for the road conditions (no fog or heavy rain). They let you see about twice as far ahead as your low beams (350 to 500 feet) and expand your field of vision to the road shoulders. You must turn them to back to low at least 500 feet from an approaching vehicle and when you're within 200 to 300 feet of the vehicle you're following.
21. Use your fog lights for better visibility if it's truly foggy, but don't if it's not. Using them when it's clear out is unsafe for other drivers and may be a traffic violation.
22. Only use any auxiliary lights you've mounted on your vehicle if they're approved for road use. They can blind other drivers and make it hard for your eyes to adjust when you switch down to regular beams.
23. If your rearview mirror has a night setting, use it.
24. When you see signs for construction zones, be prepared for redirected traffic lanes, equipment and rough roads.
25. Be on the lookout for people on foot or bike. Not everyone knows to wear reflective gear.
26. Put down your cellphone. It's a dangerous distraction, day or night, and it's a traffic violation in many states to use your cell while driving.
27. Above all, be a defensive driver during weekend nights, when there are more drunk drivers on the road.
Night driving can be a great way to beat the traffic and enjoy a little peace and quiet. Just be prepared and drive smart.
Get a free pre-trip safety check at any Les Schwab Tires.
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 cellphone 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
1. A clear, plastic storage bin to keep everything together and spot items more easily
2. First-aid kit
3. Fire extinguisher, rated for Class B and Class C fires
4. Spare tire, properly inflated, along with the jack, lug wrench and some work gloves
5. A ground mat or towel to use on hot pavement if you have to change a tire
6. Tire pressure gauge
7. Extra windshield wiper fluid in case you go through a "bug storm"
8. Rags for keeping your windshield clean, or in case you need to get under the hood and get at hot or oily areas
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. A baseball cap or visor to provide some sun protection if you get stuck in a place with no shade
12. A reflective emergency blanket to use for shade. You can buy one at most sporting goods or variety stores.
13. Sunscreen, especially if you have small kids along
14. 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.
15. Wet wipes
16. Pet items. A collapsible water bowl, spare leash and treats may come in handy.
17. 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.
18. Jumper cables
19. 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.
20. Headlamp with fresh batteries, because flat tires can happen after dark, and you'll need your hands free
21. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to Tell If Your Shocks or Struts Are Bad
It’s difficult to know just when it’s time to replace shocks and struts. For one, they go bad slowly, so the reduced ride comfort and road control you’re getting don’t seem out of the ordinary.
Also, there’s no set time or mileage for when aging shocks or struts are due for replacement. You won’t find a set service interval in your owner’s manual.
Third, these parts can be hard to get at, and seeing precisely how worn they are requires expensive disassembly. That’s just not practical or cost-effective.
Bad shocks and struts are diagnosed through other methods. Here’s what to look for as telltales:
- Cupping on tires, especially if a rotation was performed on schedule but abnormal wear is still occurring.
- Suspension bushings problems — cracking, peeling, off-center.
- Active leaking of oil on parts.
- A rougher ride.
- Bottoming out (your vehicle’s body or suspension hitting the ground) when going up a parking garage ramp or backing out of a driveway.
- Longer stopping distance.
- Swaying after a turn or lane change or in cross winds.
- Noticeable bounciness (more than one or two bounces) after going over dips or bumps.
- Nose-diving when you apply the brakes.
What Do Shocks & Struts Do?
Shocks and struts in good condition help your car handle whatever comes at you on the road — bumps, debris, sudden stops, swerving, potholes, wind gusts or sharp turns. They control the side-to-side, front-to-back and up-and-down shifts of the car’s weight and maintain optimal tire contact with the road.
Shocks or struts are hard-working parts. They can go through 75 million cycles over the course of 50,000 miles. Even on well-paved roads, they can move up or down 1,500 to 1,900 times every mile. They are partners with the brakes, steering, suspension, tires and electronic safety systems — anti-lock brakes, stability control and crash avoidance systems — in keeping a vehicle traveling safely on the road. They:
- Maintain tires’ good contact with the road by preventing them from moving up and down too much.
- Contribute to stability as you accelerate, stop and turn.
- Add to ride comfort by absorbing jolts and bumpiness from irregular road surfaces.
- Control a vehicle’s body movement (side-to-side roll, bouncing).
- Help the tread wear evenly for longer tire life.
They don’t help support the vehicle’s weight or any loads, contrary to what many think. The springs do that. But having worn-out shocks or struts creates more work for the springs as well as other important suspension parts. Without the control that a good shock or strut provides, these other parts get overworked, causing fatigue and premature wear.
Shocks and Struts Aren’t Just About a Smooth Ride
Today’s vehicles have highly engineered electronic safety systems: vehicle stability systems, ABS (anti-lock brakes), traction control, collision prevention control and automated braking. These all work together to keep tires in proper contact with the road and provide the most stability.
When you have an unexpected hard stop or swerve, your vehicle's crash avoidance systems send instant electronic signals to the brakes and other critical components. If ride control parts like shocks and struts are worn, they may not properly respond.
Then the crash prevention systems can't function as designed and you have less control behind the wheel. Stopping distance increases and brakes and tires wear more quickly. There’s added strain on the springs, which have much more up-and-down and side-to-side action to control.
How Long Do They Last?
It all depends on the amount of wear and tear they get, and that depends on the quality of roads you drive, if you haul loads and how aggressive you are behind the wheel. That’s why periodic inspections are important.
Have a technician check every 12,000 miles, if you get an alignment, when you get new tires, at least once a year and whenever you notice the symptoms above. (Les Schwab Tires typically does visual inspections each time tires get rotated and during pre-trip safety checks.)
You may not notice your ride control has been compromised when these parts are wearing out, because it happens gradually. But shock absorber or strut failures aren’t just bad for comfort. Replacing them when it’s time keeps your auto’s electronic systems and suspension working as they should, extending your vehicle’s life — and keeping you safer on the road.