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Winter Driving

February 1, 2022

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A little groundhog has predicted another six weeks of winter! Already a tough season, many of us experienced firsthand or saw news coverage of winter storms bringing cities and counties to a virtual standstill. Whether you live in a winter weather state or are just visiting, winter weather can drastically affect your ability to get around and keep to a schedule. Learning some basic driving safety measures and coping tips can help alleviate some of the aggravation. Although varying by state, understanding winter related laws or ways laws are interpreted to include winter conditions is vital to enjoying a safe winter. Hopefully you'll find the safety information in this article useful. Drive safe!

Winter Driving Safety Measures

Winter Inspection: Prepare your car ahead of time for winter road conditions. Check the levels of antifreeze, oil, and wiper fluid. Examine your windshield wipers for wear and replace them if necessary.

Tires: Examine your tire treads. If you buy snow tires or studs, get your appointment scheduled before the tire stores are inundated. If you are in a state where you can use chains or cables, inspect these when you pull them out of storage. Take time to review how to put them on before the first snow fall.

Journey Prep: Before driving out into a winter wonderland, make sure you are prepared. Clear your car of any snow and ice so you can see clearly - this includes any snow around your headlights and brake lights. How much gas is in the tank? If you are getting low, plan your route to make this your first stop. Consider your physical condition - are you awake and alert?

WEK: Don't be weak - have a Winter Emergency Kit! Some items to include in your kit are:

  • First Aid Kit
  • Travel Toolbox
  • Blankets
  • Gloves, Hats, Scarves, Jackets/Sweatshirts, etc.
  • Jumper Cables
  • Flashlight and Spare Batteries
  • Road Flares
  • Matches
  • Sand and/or Salt/Ice Melt
  • Ice Scraper and Snow Brush
  • Small Shovel
  • Water
  • Energy Bars, Nuts, Trail Mix, other High Calorie Foods (Nonperishable)
  • Cell Phone and Charger

Dress Sensibly: As we hop from one heated building to the next, we don't often consider how we are dressed for the winter weather. Adjust your wardrobe for unexpected winter weather. If you insist on traveling in the car in flip flops because they are comfy, make sure you pack thick socks and warm boots in case your car breaks down. Dress in layers and have spare gloves, a hat, and a scarf in the car.

Weather Forecast: Check for road condition updates and possible closures. Before driving in winter weather, make certain to check the local forecast.

Go S-L-O-W: Accelerate, brake, and turn slowly. Travel at slower speeds. Enter the time warp willingly, be patient, and stay calm. Trying to rush through anything during poor winter weather is the number one reason people slide off roads or skid into other cars.

Personal Bubble: Allow those around you plenty of space. Don't crowd other cars. Increase the car lengths between you and the next car.

Icy Conditions: If the forecast calls for freezing rain, the best option is not to be on the road - period. Be cautious when you consider the roads drivable again because there can be patches of ice and black ice that pop up unexpectedly. Keep in mind that ice forms quickest on bridges and overpasses. Also, as the temperatures begin to rise the thawing ice will be much slicker as it melts. If you see ice ahead of time, keep your speed slow. DO NOT hit the brakes! If you suddenly can't hear the road, which is often the case when you drive over black ice, continue forward and take your foot off the accelerator. DO NOT hit the brakes!

Look Up: Many times, the winter weather makes us concentrate on the road in front of us so much that we forget to look ahead. This is precisely the time you should be looking up and ahead; look farther than you would normally. This will give you more time to react to possible sliding cars or hazards in front of you.

Main Street: Plan your routes on main roads. These will be traveled more and are the first to be cleared and sanded.

Share the Road: Give plows and sanders plenty of space. Three car lengths is the standard suggestion. Be patient - many will get over to let traffic pass. Always pass with extreme caution and never pass them on the right as that is where they are pushing all the sludge!

Double Your Time: As a general rule, double your travel time for all your commutes and usual destinations.

Share Your Plans: Let others know of your travel plans - especially for long distances or during a weather event. Let family and friends know where you are going and the route you expect to take.

No Cruising: As with heavy rain, do not use cruise control on winter roads. If you begin to slide you may not be able to get out of cruise control quickly enough. Also, depending on the slide/skid, tapping the brake may be the last thing you should do!

Form a Pack: Have a commute group for severe weather. You can alternate drivers as you battle the extra stress and fatigue of driving in bad weather. Encourage it in your community and this can help keep more cars off the road.

Think Outside Your Car: Consider other modes of transportation altogether. If available, consider the bus or train. Get creative - do you like to cross country ski? Just stay on the sidewalk!

Flex Time: If your employer will allow you to change your hours to accommodate bad weather, wait until the plows have cleared your neighborhood and go in later. Even better, if your job can be done from home, work remote from the comfort and safety of your house.

Melting Snow and Thawing Ice: Be cautious even after the snow begins to melt. Puddles can easily hide monster potholes that grew under the ice. Potholes are not only jarring, they can do real damage to your car. In addition, be careful of hydroplaning. As the ice thaws, water may be caught between mounds of slush creating the 'perfect storm' to send your car sliding.

Blizzard Conditions: According to FEMA, "If a blizzard traps you in your car, pull off the road, set hazard lights to flashing, and hang a distress flag from the radio aerial or window. Remain in your vehicle; rescuers are most likely to find you there. Conserve fuel, but run the engine and heater about ten minutes each hour to keep warm, cracking a downwind window slightly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Exercise to maintain body heat but don't overexert. Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket. In extreme cold use road maps, seat covers, floor mats, newspapers or extra clothing for covering--anything to provide additional insulation and warmth. Turn on the inside dome light so rescue teams can see you at night, but be careful not to run the battery down. In remote areas, spread a large cloth over the snow to attract the attention of rescue planes. Do not set out on foot unless you see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Once the blizzard is over, you may need to leave the car and proceed on foot. Follow the road if possible. If you need to walk across open country, use distant points as landmarks to help maintain your sense of direction."

Legal Concerns

Car Snowballs:

You should clear off all of the snow on your car to make for safer driving - but is it required legally? Technically, in most states, there is no law that demands snow be brushed off your car completely. Instead, other laws may be interpreted to include snow as a hazard. To be safe, uncover your car completely so your view is not obstructed and you don't inadvertently cause hazards. Consider these scenarios:

  • Windows.  In many states you can be cited if your windshield, rear window, and side windows are obstructed so that you cannot see the road. This is often interpreted to include snow, ice, and fog that disrupt the driver's view.
  • Roof and Hood.  Snow left on your roof or hood, in most states, will not necessarily result in a citation; however, if the snow blows off your car and damages another car (i.e., smacks into and cracks the windshield of the car behind you), you are liable for any damages. Some states are clever and cite snow falling from your car as littering! 
  • Lights.  In some states you can be cited for not clearing snow from your headlights and brake lights. Be safe and clear all lights. If nothing else, this will ensure a brighter path to lead you down the road.

Tire Enhancements:

SNOW TIRES: Standard in many snowy states, there are usually no penalties for having snow tires on past a certain date. Check with your local tire stores as they will often store your summer tires during the winter season and vice versa.

STUDDED TIRES: States that allow studded tires for winter travel often have a set timeline when they may be used (i.e., In Alaska they may be used from September 15th to May 1st - most states in the lower 48 will have a shorter time allotment). This information can be found on the website of your state Department of Transportation.

CHAINS: If traveling in mountainous states, verify if chains are required to be on your tires. If so, make sure you have the chains in your car and you are familiar with how to put them on your tires. Some flat states will allow chains under certain conditions. Check with your state Department of Transportation for specific requirements or limitations. The following YouTube video, sponsored by the Oregon Department of Transportation, illustrates how to put cable style chains on your tires:


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