Driving in the Snow

I never learned to drive in the snow. I always tell people I learned to pass an Amish buggy before I learned to drive on an interstate, but despite learning to drive in northeastern Indiana, I never learned to drive in winter weather.

I blame my mother for this lapse in guidance. She was so worried about safety (and probably her own mental health) that my brothers and I were quite simply banned from the driver’s seat in any kind of winter weather. In fairness to my mom, she rarely drives in that kind of weather, either, so she practices what she preaches. And she probably forgot that we were going to grow up one day and have to drive to work in winter. So, you know, moms.

At any rate, I had to teach myself to drive in snow and ice last year. I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in South Bend over the Christmas season and got up early to “go to the gym.” Really, I was bracing myself for my first drive through snow and ice. I made it seem like the whole thing was no big deal, though I made absolutely sure to tell someone exactly where I was going, and when I expected to be back, for the sake of safety. It wasn’t until I got back from a somewhat harrowing experience that I ‘fessed up to my little experiment.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about driving in a winter wonderland, and if you’ve been putting off this eye-opening learning experience, here’s some tips for you (or anyone you think needs a refresher course.)

  1. Clean off your car and start it early. Apparently, you can crack your engine if you don’t start it before you try to drive it, so give it at least five minutes before you take off. In the meantime, clean off your car. Your WHOLE car. This includes not only windows and windshields, but headlights and taillights and any accumulated snow on the top or hood of your car. Flying snow is dangerous enough, don’t let it come off your car in clumps to hit the driver behind you. You can’t go anywhere anyway, so do a good job getting it taken care of.
  2. Expect to take three times as long to get anywhere. I’m not saying it necessarily will take you forever to complete the drive, but it could if you hit an area of untreated road. You need to either leave early, or make peace with your tardiness. This is no time to be in a hurry.
  3. No sudden movements. You are going to slide. Say it five times, out loud, right now. “I am going to slide.” If you start to slide or fishtail, do not EVER EVER jerk the wheel or slam your brakes. Take your foot off the gas and turn your wheel in the direction of the slide to get control of your vehicle. If you hit your brakes, you will go into a full tailspin. I guarantee it. Stay centered and calm. If you miss your turn or go into the other lane, just take a note from the Beatles and let it be. Do not over correct.
  4. Slow down. You are not Speed Racer on a good day. So you are CERTAINLY not Speed Racer today. Drive according to the conditions. If it’s really bad, go really slow, and don’t tailgate. If you know a stoplight is coming up, just take your foot off the gas and start tapping the brake. You will not be able to stop your car all at once; you will slide through the intersection if you try to do so. If you have to make a turn, prepare to make it very slowly, or you will fishtail. If you can’t get traction, slowly press the gas pedal, because once you get going, you’llĀ go. You can’t make a decision and just go with it like you normally would. Assume all of your actions are on a five-second delay, because you’ll need a little longer to execute. That means, think carefully, go slowly, and leave yourself (and others) some room for mistakes.
  5. Stay home. I may mock my mother, but she definitely has the right idea. If the roads suck, and you don’t have to be anywhere, don’t go. Stay home. Turn on Netflix and go on a David Tennant binge. Not just for your safety, but for others. The fewer cars on the road, the better it is for the drivers who have to be out there.

Hope that gives you some good pointers! Stay safe and warm this winter, everybody! And don’t be one of THOSE drivers. (You know which ones.)

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

10 replies on “Driving in the Snow”

OK, this one is for total neophytes or people with a new or rented car.

Know if your car has ABS and know that they make a god-awful noise. If the car’s systems detect that you don’t have good traction, they’ll kick in no matter what you were previously able to do in your five wheels and an engine econobox.

It will take longer to stop and it will sound and feel like you are running over something or something awful is happening to your car. Don’t worry and _don’t_ take your foot off the brake.

I may have ended up half-way into the intersection at the Transcanada and 18th Street after renting a car to get between Winnipeg and Brandon. Then I didn’t have a car with ABS until 2011.

I’m a gearhead and I like to drive offroad, so I’ve been through some tough terrain and conditions before. Remember that puddles are really deceptive, and if you’re not sure how deep it is, you should NOT drive through it. If you get water in your engine, you’re pretty much done driving that car. The northeast US is doing some vicious thawing and freezing right now, so there’s a ton of floods happening.

Also, please remember that nothing other than your own driving skills will save you on ice. A bigger, heavier vehicle will be good if you’re going through shallow puddles or slush, but once things are frozen solid, all you can do is drive very carefully, be prepared to slide, and be aware of what signs to look for. If you’re seeing roads that look wet, but there’s no stuff spraying from other cars driving, you aren’t in water, you’re on ice.

Sorry to get all pedantic up in here, I just really like driving and have done a lot of it in some really shit weather. And I’m an automotive parts/sales trainer irl, so “pedantic” is part of the job description, lol. If you want to practice driving in genuine snow without, you know, being in snow, sand is your next best bet. It acts a lot like snow (not slush) does and can help you get used to the different feel of the surface beneath your car. Godspeed, Persephoneers!

Where has this advice been all my life?! It’s rarely snowy or icy in Ireland, at least not the non-mountainy parts where I live and work. We specialise more in damp and grey. But a couple of years ago when I was a newish driver there was a cold snap that lasted a few weeks and the whole damn country shut down. It wasn’t even bad by international standards but our roads and cars, and more importantly people, were not prepared! So it was a steep learning curve for me. I found the biggest problem was other drivers.

‘Oh hey, I clearly don’t know this road so I’m going to go full speed round this corner by the frozen canal, k?’ That sort of thing. Not fun, but at least now I know I could do it again if I have to.

I think our AA says that “warming up” the car isn’t necessary, but I’m not that sure. And we probably don’t get your kind of hell has frozen over temperature here.

Last time I drove through snow flurries when I had to do my driver’s test. Yes, that was ..a challenge.

Many times, it’s not really cold enough outside and the engine doesn’t immediately get hot enough on startup, to do any real damage to the engine block for modern vehicles. However, if you have an older, higher-mileage vehicle, it can take a while for the oil to circulate through the upper portion of your engine (motor oil gets thicker in the cold and warmer in the heat, that’s why there are dual-viscosity oils [10w30] available for use), your engine will be sluggish and won’t be working at anything approaching near peak efficiency. In rare instances, you can damage your engine if the oil doesn’t thin out and warm up quickly enough before you start driving. And if you have a diesel, trying to start it when it’s too cold can be literally impossible–gasoline engines use actual sparks to ignite the fuel, but diesel engines use heat generated by glow plugs.

tl;dr: extreme temperature changes won’t crack your block, but your engine doesn’t like to be too cold before you start driving.

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