Winter is here, as much as many of us would like to deny the obvious. Many parts of the northern 48 have already been hit by heavy snow this year, with much more on its way, making for treacherous driving conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 1,300 Americans are killed and more than 116,000 are injured on snowy, slushy, or icy roads each winter. In the U.S., 70% of residents live in snowy climates, and most of us are familiar with the most common winter weather driving safety tips, which largely have to do with avoiding sliding into other cars or stationary objects:
- Accelerate and decelerate slowly
- Drive slowly
- Increase following distance from 3 or 4 seconds to 8 to 10 in icy, wet, and cold conditions
- Employ threshold braking: Keep your heel firmly planted on the floor and apply steady brake pressure with the ball of your foot
- Try not to stop quickly
- Increase your speed before a hill to gain inertia, but never speed up on icy or snowy hills, and try to avoid stopping on them too
- Drive only if you absolutely must
Those of us living in snowy climates also know we should ensure our cars are properly weatherproofed against the elements, preferably before the first cold snap, and pack our cars with an emergency kit.
All this notwithstanding, there are still five lesser-known winter driving tips that we want to remind our readers about.
1. Don’t idle your car first before driving it
The best thing to do to warm your car quickly during cold temperatures is to get in and drive. Most parts of modern engines can’t warm up just by idling.
Why does the idling myth persist? The idea dates back to the 1980s and 90s when carburetors (a formerly essential engine element which is no longer widely used) were the norm, writes the Washington Post. Carburetors did need to be adequately warmed before driving in order to get the right mix of air and fuel into the engine. But now, electronic fuel injection, which relies on sensors to find the right mix of air and fuel, have replaced carburetors and warm-up idling is now irrelevant for both optimal engine performance and passenger cabin comfort. The only thing you’ll do by idling is waste gas and cause more pollution.
“In reality,” says ABC 7, “the EPA says driving the car will warm it up faster than idling, both the inside heat and under the hood, and a brief idling time of no more than 30 seconds is all that’s needed.”
Revving your engine to warm it up isn’t a good idea either because you risk damaging the engine. “You don’t want to over-rev it, gun it, cause harm to the engine, especially when everything is stone cold. Go easy if you can, it will save your engine’s life,” John O’Rourke, a Cincinnati-based mechanic, told ABC 7. O’Rourke’s advice: ease into driving rather than letting the vehicle sit to warm up or revving the engine.
One caveat: if your windows or windshield are frosted over, you’ll either need to get out and scrape or idle until the ice melts. Which leads us to our next important point:
2. Never pour boiling water on the windshield
You could actually break the windshield if you do. Glass cannot go from freezing to high temperatures quickly. If it does, it could shatter, say the mechanics at Holiday Automotive.
And while you’re at it, don’t pour boiling water anywhere else on your car, either – you could shatter side windows or damage in-door electronic systems.
And during winter especially, if your windshield has even a small crack, have it repaired immediately as windshields are crucial to vehicle structural integrity. Luckily, many companies will replace your windshield right in your driveway (and many insurers will pay for it, too).
If you must drive before you’re able to get a cracked windshield repaired, do not blast the heat inside your car if the temperatures outside are low. A crack in glass could spread much more quickly with a sudden temperature contrast.
3. What to do—and NOT do—when you hydroplane or hit black ice
Even the 30% of U.S. residents who won’t see snow this year can benefit from a hydroplaning dos-and-don’ts refresher.
Hydroplaning occurs when your tires encounter more water than they can scatter so they lose direct contact with the road and your car skids or slides. You’re most likely to hydroplane during the first 10 minutes of rain or snow as oils and grease on the road mix with water and create extra slippery conditions. Still, hydroplaning can happen on wet roads at any point, so use caution.
In cold conditions, you’re also at risk of hitting a patch of black ice, a transparent (read: invisible) coating of ice that forms during rainfall with temperatures at or below 32 degrees fahrenheit).
Both experiences can be dangerous, but if you prepare ahead, you can avoid acting out of fear and instead take steps to continue safely on down the road:
- First, don’t let panic take over. Don’t accelerate or brake quickly because hydroplaning means you’ve lost traction with the road, and sudden changes in speed could cause you could spin out.
- If you have front wheel drive (with or without ABS and traction control) or rear-wheel drive with ABS and traction control, look for an open space and plan to travel in that direction, says Defensive Driving. Accelerate just a little and steer gently – without sudden movements – in the direction of the open space.
- If you have rear-wheel drive without ABS or traction control, you should still head toward an open space, but instead of applying pressure to the accelerator, ease off it as you steer to the open space.
Watch the advice in action:
As usual, a healthy dose of prevention can go a long way:
- Keep your tires properly inflated (neither under nor over)
- Don’t use cruise control in wet or icy conditions
- Make sure your tire tread is thick enough
- Observe roads during cold weather, and if you see patches of glossy pavement, beware of black ice
- Slow down in any wet, icy, or snowy conditions
4. Practice anti-glare: stow extra sunglasses
You probably usually remember to carry sunglasses in the summertime, but they’re equally (if not more) important for winter driving. In the wintertime, the sun hits lower on the horizon, causing glare and difficult driving conditions, especially late in the day when people tend to commute home. The best types of sunglass lenses for winter driving are those with amber or yellow hues.
Stock a few extras pairs of sunglasses in your car or grab a cheap pair at a gas station if you’re in a pinch.
5. A tire chain primer for winter weather driving
Tire chains aren’t for the everyday urban or suburban driver. John Paul of AAA Northeast, told Boston.com, “Unless you’re driving in the mountain ranges of the Midwest, tire chains are pretty archaic and have lived beyond their life … where we do a pretty good job of plowing.”
Not only are chains difficult to attach, they’re like “driving on a car square tires,” says Paul. That is, chains make for an incredibly uncomfortable ride. Plus, they must be removed once you find a clear stretch of road.
In fact, the only people who probably need tire chains are those living in rural (read: unplowed) areas with several inches of snowfall or during extreme blizzard conditions.
For those in other regions, consider keeping an extra shovel and some kitty litter in your car to help you steer out of snowy spots instead.
If you do get in a car crash, remember these tips. Have fun out there this winter, but be careful – ‘tis a joyful, but dangerous, season!