A white winter can be beautiful, but snow and ice also present unique driving challenges. Each year, 24% of weather-related car crashes in the United States happen on snowy, slushy or icy roads. In addition to accidents, getting stranded in your car in inclement weather can be especially dangerous. And while you can’t control the weather (or road conditions) you can make sure you’re prepared for most driving scenarios.
Do a winter weather checkup
Just as you head to the doctor for a yearly physical, your car should get an evaluation on at least an annual basis, too — and before winter sets in is the perfect time to do it. Start with the outside. Before the freeze sets in, you’ll especially want to make sure your windshield wipers and tires are in fighting shape. And if you live in a particularly snowy climate, consider getting snow tires that grip the road with special rubber compounds and tread designed to prevent sliding.
Then, focus on your car’s inner workings. Now is the time to check your battery. You’ll also want to make sure to change your oil and replace the oil filter regularly. Cold weather can thicken oil, making lower temperatures rough on your engine. Have your radiator and heater hoses checked for cracks or leaks as well (and replace them if they feel too brittle or soft). Winter weather also calls for a check on your coolant mixture, which should consist of a 50/50 ratio of antifreeze and water to keep it from freezing.
Choose a vehicle with all-wheel drive
When you see an SUV cutting through rough terrain in a car commercial, the vehicle may be equipped with all-wheel drive (AWD). Compared to rear-wheel drive, AWD offers superior traction, particularly when starting from a complete stop or driving on a slippery, uphill surface. If you live in a place where ice and snow are a given each winter, AWD is something to consider to help ensure safe travel during harsh conditions.
Upgrade to electronic stability control
While all-wheel drive used to be the gold standard (and is still very useful) for maneuvering in tough winter weather conditions, all new cars built after 2011 come standard with an even better built-in feature — electronic stability control. This automatic system utilizes computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to help keep you on course when steering and reducing the likelihood of spinouts from loss of road traction.
If your car broke down in the pre-smartphone days, you may have found yourself relying on the kindness of strangers passing by. Thanks to modern technology, it’s much easier to access help. Many new vehicles come with roadside assistance service, and if you’re driving an older car, or the subscription has lapsed, buying a plan is a worthy investment — especially for winter driving.
When headed out on a long road trip, let someone know where you’re going and your estimated time of arrival, and plan to check in with them when you reach your destination. (So, don’t forget to make sure your phone is charged.)
Keep a mobile emergency stash
Before you brave the open road in the cold, make sure you have some essentials stored in your vehicle in case of emergencies. Extra food and water, warm clothing, blankets, a flashlight and a window scraper are all smart to have on hand should your car break down in cold weather. Try to avoid walking in a severe storm or in freezing temperatures. The safest and warmest place you can be is in your vehicle, where you can benefit from the temporary shelter it provides until help arrives.
Get a grip on how your car handles in winter weather
Once your car is in tip-top shape, the only missing element is you. All the safety features and checks won’t mean much if you don’t know how to utilize them and adapt your driving to the weather.
To ensure you’re in as good a condition as a driver as your vehicle is, try out a test drive in snowy and icy conditions in a safer environment — like a parking lot — before hitting the open road. Winter weather often calls for an adjustment in your driving, and you’ll get a better idea of how your car performs in these circumstances. In general, you should drive more slowly on snow or ice, and accelerate and decelerate at a slower pace, too.
Increase your following distance so you have more of a buffer between you and the next car should you need to quickly slow down or stop. Avoid powering up inclines, which will only make your wheels spin, but at the same time, don’t stop as you’re going up a hill and lose momentum.
Cruise into winter worry-free
When you drive into a winter wonderland, be sure you’re prepared for the hurdles cold weather can put in your path. With the right safeguards in place, you can navigate the elements with ease.