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
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.
Winter Driving Tips: How to Drive in Snow
According to the Federal Highway Administration, about a quarter of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement and 15 percent happen during snowfall or sleet.
Now for the good news. With the right preparation, you can travel safely even when the weather turns on you. Hint: properly inflated tires in good condition are near the top of the list. This is a must so you have the traction you need.
When you find yourself driving on snow or you’re caught in a storm, remember the following advice on vehicle handling.
How to Drive on Snow and When It’s Snowing
- Here’s a winter driving checklist to prepare and stay safe.
- Clear off snow from windows, mirrors and roof before you leave. When you brake, snow on top can slide forward and cover your windshield.
- Brush off snow from your lights, so you have the best light on the road and other drivers can see you.
- Reduce your speed and leave more space between you and the vehicle ahead. A good following distance is about eight to 10 seconds from the other vehicle, depending on your tire tread, weight of your vehicle, road slope, amount of snow on the road, and visibility. You may want even more.
Stopping Distance on Packed Snow
- How much stopping distance will you need? For the reasons above, safe stopping distance varies by vehicle. For a cars 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. Ten times for icy roads. (See this stopping distances chart for calculations at multiple speeds.)
- Avoid sudden stops, abrupt downward gear shifts and quick direction changes. Brake gently to avoid skidding or sliding. If the wheels lock up, ease off the brakes.
- Know what to do before you go into a skid. Skid car classes on how to drive on slick roads are a great idea for young drivers and anyone else traveling by road a lot in winter.
- The rules for getting out of a skid depend on a lot of factors: whether you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), if you have front- or rear-wheel drive, if the road is icy, if you’re going downhill, if you have extra weight in your vehicle. Read more about skid correction.
- The way to drive downhill on packed snow depends on whether you have ABS. If so, start at the top of the hill as slowly as possible. Leave your auto in normal drive gear and use light, steady pressure on the brake pedal to stay at a safe speed. This allows your antilock braking system to maintain traction by making sure all four tires slow at the same rate when you apply the brakes. (Learn more here.) If you don’t have ABS, proceed slowly and lightly pump your brakes on the way down.
- Don’t be overconfident just because you have all-wheel drive (AWD). Here’s why. You'll get the best traction for driving in winter conditions with snow tires mounted on all four wheels.
Use Extra Caution
- Stay in your lane, especially when visibility’s bad from driving snow. Think twice about passing. More hours of darkness and foul weather mean we just don’t see as well on the road in winter.
- Give trucks and snowplows plenty of room. Stay well into your lane and don’t follow closely. Big vehicles blow a lot of snow around which lowers visibility.
- NEVER pass big vehicles on the right. Debris, rocks and ice that can crack your windshield get sprayed in all directions from snowplows.
- Don’t drive through snowdrifts. They may cause your vehicle to spin out of control.
- When it’s snowing, don’t use your brights. They will reduce, not improve, road visibility.
- If you’re noticing snow turn to sleet or ice, kick your defroster into high. If ice builds up on your windshield pull over when you’re in a safe place and use an ice scraper. Don’t try to squint through a small section of your windshield.
- Use extreme caution when approaching off-ramps, bridges and shady spots where snow or ice on the road may be worse.
- Never use cruise control in snow or when there’s a chance of ice. It can cause your tires to spin faster when you hit a slick spot then fishtail your vehicle when the tires regain traction.
About Using Snow Chains
- Carry chains and know how to use them, including which wheels you need to put them on.
- Near chain-up and removal areas, slow down even more and watch for people in the road.
- If you have to pull over because conditions are too bad to go on, get as far off on the shoulder as safely possible, turn off your headlights and turn on your hazard lights.
Remember that your best bet for driving this season is to make sure your tires can handle the winter conditions. Last but not least, be flexible. Sometimes it makes the most sense to stop somewhere for a while or the night to wait out the weather.
Shop for Winter Tires