I’ve been a “road warrior” for 13 years now (shudder!) so I guess I am what you would call a professional driver. I’ve driven in all seasons and environments from our nasty Chicago winters to truly nasty Southwestern Michigan winters. I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people have no clue what they’re doing when they’re driving in snow. Having never been in an accident or required the use of a tow truck to be removed from a ditch I thought I would offer these helpful tips.
Legal notice: these are my helpful hints, I’m not responsible for how you use them. If you lose control and wreck your car or otherwise it’s not my fault, it’s yours. Viewer discretion is advised.
Tires, Tires and Tires
There’s just no substitute for a decent set of tires for driving in the winter. In my job inspecting cars in the field I’ve found the first place most people pay little or no attention to on their vehicle is tires. I see all different brands, worn out, cupped, dry rotted, under inflated, never rotated, never balanced, the list goes on and on.
If you want to put money well spent into your car, spend it on your tires. Tires give you traction, tires keep you on the road and tires keep you in control. No other component on a car affects these areas as much as tires. So stop cheaping out on them!
If you have a sporty car with hard low-profile (i.e. skinny on the side) tires you should really invest in a set of winter rims and tires. Tire Rack offers great deals on these packages and it’s simplicity in itself. The snow comes, you swap over to the snow rims and tires. When the snow is gone you put your stock rims and tires back on. You get great winter traction, you save your cool alloy wheels from harsh winter conditions and everyone is happy.
Maybe you don’t have that kind of cash to spend and you want a year-round solution. Then you need to look for a set of truly all-season tires. I can’t recommend Nokian tires enough, their latest tire being the WRG2. I put a set of these on my 2006 Mitsubishi Galant GTS which had some performance tires that were horrid in the snow and the difference is astounding. The price isn’t bad either but more than you’re used to spending if you’ve consistently cheaped out on tires. There’s other brands out there with some great all season tires but I have put the Nokians on three different cars and never regretted it.
Once you have that nice set of tires keep them up to pressure, get them rotated at least every 10,000 miles and get an alignment done if you are noticing any pulls or shimmies when you drive.
Power Is Your Friend, Your Brakes Are Not
So now you have a great set of tires on your car, awesome! Now learn how to use them. The number one mistake I see when people are driving in snow, above all others, is being on the brake all the time. When you are breaking you have reduced traction since your tires are going against the grain to try to slow you down. This is a bad situation and why most people go into slides and rear-end people or lose control and go off the road.
However, when you are applying power to your drive wheels your tires are working for you and not against you. You are taking control of the traction and keeping your car pointed in the right direction and reducing the chances of hydroplaning. I know this sounds the opposite of what may make sense to you but the next time you’re driving in snow try following these simple power turn rules:
- Rely on laying off the gas as opposed to hitting your brakes to slow your car down, this means you have to start slowing down earlier.
- When making a turn reduce your speed before going into the turn, not during the turn.
- Brake lightly before going into the turn, not during the turn.
- Apply power during the turn to pull your car through the snow and slush, you will have far better control.
If you stick to these guidelines you will find yourself much more confident taking turns in the snow, just don’t get carried away!
4×4 Is Not Invincible
Have you ever noticed during a bad snowstorm the vast majority of the vehicles off the road and in a ditch are sport utilities? “How can that be?” you may ask. The reason is simple, while four-wheel drive (4×4 or 4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) gives you better traction it doesn’t help you stop any better!
Most 4×4 owners get a false sense of security from it and think that it will take care of them. They accelerate faster, take more risks and end up going much too fast for the conditions. To add insult to injury most 4x4s and AWD vehicles are bigger and heavier which means it takes a lot more room to stop them. On top of that they have a higher center of gravity which means when they start to go into a slide they are more difficult to control. Add all these things up and you have a formula for disaster and the reason why so many SUVs in the ditch.
Finally, most 4×4 drivers were never taught how to use their toy the right way, so I will tell you:
- Learn if your car is a 4×4 (will have selectable mode) or is AWD. There’s a difference.
- If you have an AWD stick with the rules I gave you above. Only the most advanced AWD vehicles (Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru WRX, Acura RDX, Audis with Quattro, to name a few) have AWD systems that are as capable as true 4WD. Most AWD systems, especially on mini-vans and compact SUVs, are glorified front-wheel drive with some power to the rear when needed.
- If you have good clean pavement leave it in 2WD and save on gas. Only put it in 4WD when you really need it.
- Reduce speed going into curves and turns and apply power going through them to take full advantage of 4WD and your increased traction.
- If you start to slide turn into the direction of the slide and apply power to regain traction. Don’t brake, and don’t steer away from the slide.
- 4WD requires more power from the motor to run so when you let off the gas it will usually slow you down faster than in a regular car.
- You’re probably bigger and heavier and require more room to stop and slow down — slow down earlier and start to brake well behind the person in front of you.
- When most people lose control it’s because they lost the rear end. Put some tube sand or bags of kitty litter (also helpful for putting in the snow if you do get stuck) in your trunk, cargo area, or pickup bed to give you some additional weight on your rear wheels so they can provide you power.
Lights On For Safety
Fortunately there are a lot of cars with daytime running lights now so this applies less. But remember, in Illinois we have a law that if your wipers are on, your lights are to be on — follow it! It’s not so you can see, it’s so you can be seen. I don’t know how many times I’ve been out in a bad snow storm or in fog and some gibroni doesn’t have his lights on and can’t be seen.
Also, if you have a European car, for pete sake don’t put your rear fog lights on unless there is really fog!! Rear fog lights are common on European cars and your fog lights will usually have two settings, the first one puts your front fog lights on and the second puts your rear fog light(s) on. You can always see these cars as they have one or two really bright taillights and look like they’re breaking but it’s actually a rear fog light. Read your owner’s manual and figure out how your Euro toy works for pete sake! I’ve been blinded for miles by these types in perfectly clear weather and it is truly annoying. Don’t do it!
There you go, the Guy Certified tips for driving in the winter. Be safe out there!