Safe Winter Driving Techniques

Remember the Slip ‘N Slide from childhood? They were those 16-foot long sheets of wet plastic that allowed you to gather up a full head of steam, flop on your belly, and slide with reckless abandon to a (sometimes) dangerous stop. The possibility of a crash landing was half the fun.

The toy, when used with some degree of prudence, rarely caused major injury.

Hopefully, the recklessness that we exhibited as kids has been tempered with age, and we don’t intentionally slip or slide while driving in icy conditions.

Drivers face a number of dangerous situations when driving in snow and ice. Even the most experienced drivers occasionally lose control of the car when braking, accelerating or hitting patches of black ice. They experience white out conditions, which eliminates the ability to see cars in front of you, and reduces depth perception.

Those who are really unfortunate wait too long to get from here to there, can get stuck for hours on highways. It’s tempting to put good judgment aside and take one last ski run down the mountain. As exhilarating as it sounds to make one more run, try not to be a hero thinking you’ll plow through a rough winter storm in your all wheel drive. Use your cellphone or tablet to track storm fronts and weather warnings, and get ahead of bad weather.

Here are some recommendations to keeping you and others safe:

Never slam on the brakes

If you find yourself heading toward a dangerous situation it’s natural to slam on the brakes. If the roads are icy, that’s a bad idea because you’re sure to skid. Instead, let off the gas and allow the car to slow itself down. If you’re driving a manual transmission, downshifting will slow the car without using the brakes.

In general, when it’s icy out, drive slower than normal, and give yourself plenty of distance between you and the cars ahead of you. Figure that you’ll need at least triple the amount of distance to stop when the roads are slick. When you need to stop quickly, pump your brakes gently instead of pressing them hard to prevent spinning.

Beware of black ice

Black ice is clear and is almost invisible to the eye. It hides under bridges, under overpasses, and in shady areas. Black ice can form from melting snow that drains and then freezes. When driving on roads that are shaded by trees, be conscious of areas that resemble newly laid asphalt and spots that hold water runoff. When the temperature is 40 degrees and below, those are areas where black ice forms.

If you hit some black ice and start to skid, take your foot off the accelerator. If you start to spin, turn the wheel in the direction you want your car to go. Once you regain traction it’s safe to hit the gas...slowly.

Turn off the cruise control

Cruise control is a wonderful feature, but it can be deadly if used when driving through snow or ice. If your car is on cruise control it means that you are not in total command of your car’s speed. In order to regain control of the car most people tap the brakes. But tapping the brakes can send your car into a spin. To stay in complete control of your car turn off the cruise control.

Don’t rely solely on technology

Late model cars come with a seemingly endless array of technology features, such as night vision pedestrian detection and cross path detection systems, that are designed to reduce human errors. These technological advances can give drivers a false sense of security. When driving in inclement weather, don’t rely on technology to get you out of a jam. Instead, develop good driving techniques to ensure your safety.


If you start to skid, let up on the gas, turn the wheel in the direction you want the car to go, and resist the urge to accelerate or brake until you regain control of your car.

Manual transmission cars

Driving a stickshift in the snow can be both a curse, and a blessing. The upside of driving a stick is that you have more control of the car. Downshifting can help slow a car without having to hit the brakes.

The downside of driving a stick in icy weather is that hills become a nightmare. Those who drive a stick sometimes need to be creative in order to get their cars moving forward.

The safest hill strategy is to avoid them altogether, but that’s not always viable. If you need to stop on a hill pull your car off to the right (or left) side of the road where the snow hasn’t been compacted by traffic. The loose snow will give you some grip to get you going. If you need more power to get your car moving, start in second gear because the wheels turn more slowly which provides more force.

If you get stuck

If you’re one of the unfortunate drivers who get stuck on the highway during blizzard conditions, you’re on your own for survival. You could be stuck in the same place for hours in frigid temperatures so be prepared.

You should have a basic survival kit packed away in the car. The kit should include water, food (granola bars, nuts, trail mix, candy bars), medicine, gloves, blankets, a tool kit, shovel, flashlight with working batteries, walking shoes, and a cell phone charger.

If you’re stuck in a blizzard and your car isn’t going anywhere, the most important thing to do is make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow. If it’s not and you keep the car running, carbon monoxide will make its way into your car. Check the exhaust pipe every so often to make sure it’s clear.

As the snow falls, keep digging it out your car so you’ll be ready to go when the roads open up.

Practice makes perfect

The best thing you can do to hone your driving skills is find an empty parking lot, and put your car through its paces to see how it reacts (and, by the way, you’re testing your own skills). Slam on the brakes in the snow and ice to see what happens, and how you react. Did you slip and slide or did you maintain control of the car? Make your car spin and practice getting out of it. A little time in a parking lot might save your life.

Don’t forget about preparation. Taking care of your car in the winter can go a long way towards keeping you safe in cold driving conditions. If you need any assistance getting your car prepared to take on colder temperatures, YourMechanic offers services to help you maintain your car.

The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details

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