Sunday, November 11, 2012

Don't Be a Winter Driver Idiot

Even an all-wheel-drive car, like this Subaru Impreza STI, can lose control in slick winter conditions if not driven carefully.

During the past weekend the first big winter storm just hit where I live, and of course with the snow covering the roads the idiot behavior has spread around far and wide. Time after time I saw people doing the exact things they shouldn't have been doing on the road considering the slippery conditions and poor visibility. I also overheard people talking to others about winter driving habits that are just plain dangerous like they were no big deal. These people are going to wonder what happened when they suddenly find themselves pinned against an eighteen wheeler or upside down in a ditch full of icy water--but by then it might be too late.

In the spirit of the idiot winter driving skills I have recently witnessed, here is a helpful list that can aid anyone to not drive like a complete idiot in the snow:

1. Clear the snow off your car. I see this one constantly and there's just no excuse for it. People leave several inches of snow on their car's roof or the hood, thinking it will just blow off as they drive. The problem is the snow on your hood will blow onto your windshield, creating a tiny blizzard for just you to drive in, making it hard for you to see anything in front of your car. The snow on your car's roof can suddenly slide onto your windshield, completely blocking your view. Don't think your windshield wipers can move several pounds of wet snow, meaning you'll have to pull over (without being able to see in front of you) and clear the snow off your windshield. Maybe you can stick your head out the window like Ace Ventura in the meantime so you can actually see where you're going. Even more unbelievable to me, I regularly see people who don't even bother to clear the snow off their side and rear windows. Every vehicle that is driven where snow falls or ice forms on windows should have an ice scraper and snow brush in it, since it is a tool that is absolutely essential for safe winter driving.

This is how you'd have to drive with a windshield covered by snow.

2. Don't speed. When the roads are slick with snow and ice, it will take longer for you to stop. I know a lot of people think they're Ken Block or something, but they're not and they shouldn't try to drive like him. If you're speeding in snowy conditions, you're even more likely to slide out of control and get into a wreck. Speeding because you're late can actually make you even more late, since a wreck will undoubtedly chew up a good portion of your day (not to mention reward you with a pleasant ambulance ride if you're really lucky). Another thing: just because your vehicle has all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive doesn't mean you can speed without consequence. I've owned several vehicles where all four wheels receive power from the transmission (translation: both all-wheel and four-wheel-drive) and I always drive carefully in the snow despite the extra handling ability of the vehicle. I've driven through nasty storms in a little front-wheel-drive vehicle, where the sides of the road is literally littered with SUVs and pickup trucks that slid off because the drivers were going way too fast for the conditions. Instead of speeding, leave early and give yourself plenty of time to drive through a winter storm. Everyone else on the road will thank you for not speeding.

3. Stop tailgating. You shouldn't tailgate or follow the car in front of your too closely--it's a rude habit that could lead to your car becoming several inches shorter in a hurry. In slick road conditions, such as during a winter storm, you should be especially careful of tailgating. If you constantly find yourself slamming on the brakes hard when the driver in front of you stops, you are following too closely and need to leave more space between your car and the car in front.

4. Steer into the slide. It's natural for a driver to want to steer in the opposite direction the car is sliding. The thing is steering away from a slide on an icy, snowy road actually makes the car slide even more. By steering into the slide, or turning the wheel the way the car is sliding, you will actually stop the slide dead in its tracks (unless you are on an incredibly slippery road--then nothing will save you).

5. Maintain your tires. Most drivers don't realize it, but your tires are arguably the single most important piece of safety equipment on your car. The tires affect not only how your car handles, as well as how long it takes it to stop. Balding tires will cause your car to easily slide on slick roads. Not inflating your tires properly also reduces your tires' gripping ability, which in turn can cause your car to slide around on the slick roads. Paying close attention to your tires on a regular basis is the best policy.

6. Keep your fuel levels up. The old rule of thumb I've heard is to keep your fuel levels above the halfway mark during the winter months. If you get caught in a bad snow storm, it will take you much longer to get to your destination, which means you need more fuel to get there. Using four-wheel-drive on a vehicle also chews up additional fuel. If the storm is bad enough, you could become stranded on the road until help arrives. You will need extra fuel to run your car's heater while you wait for help, otherwise you might be sitting in a hospital for hypothermia treatments after your rescue.

7. Check your fluids often.The cold winter temperatures can do funny things with the fluid levels in your car. Low coolant levels causes your car's heaters to not operate correctly, not to mention negatively affect your engine's performance. Many people don't think to check their windshield washer fluid level, but when you have salt spraying on your windows, having enough washer fluid can mean the difference between being able to see out your windshield and not. There's nothing like a streaky windshield to help you crash into another car or an inanimate object.

8. Practice somewhere safe. The best thing I did as a young driver was I practiced driving in the snow until I had snow driving down. When snow would hit the ground I would go to a large parking lot at a nearby church where there were no other cars or anything else to hit. I would drive the car around, practicing my winter driving skills for hours. I would even intentionally put my car into a slide and spin out so I could feel what it was like and practice how to get out of those bad situations. I would also practice starting gradually so my tires wouldn't spin coming out of a dead stop. If you're nervous to drive in the snow, this is the best way to gain some snow driving experience without having to worry about getting into a wreck on the road.