Winter Is Dangerous! 10 Commandments for Driving Safely in the Snow

Kia Sorento SXL
Kia Sorento SXL | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This year marks the third year in a row when 900-horsepower off-road pickups have been allowed to batter the snowcapped mountains of Maine in the annual Red Bull Frozen Rush 4×4 truck race. Heralded as “the world’s only off-road, Pro 4 truck race on snow,” this hardcore event takes nine of the world’s best drivers and dumps them in America’s arctic north-land on a track that has literally been carved into the side of a ski hill.

As a fully sanctioned function within the increasingly popular Red Bull Signature Series, this oddball winter sport takes drivers out of their comfort zone by cutting them loose in an environment that has the traction equivalent of knock-off K-Y Jelly. Baja 1,000 race-engineered pickups may be pros at dominating things like dirt, rock, sand, and mud, but when it comes to hitting the slopes, even the most hardcore automobile is prone to fishtailing wildly, even with specialized BF Goodrich rubber at the ready.

But for as cool as this sport may be to watch from the comfort of the couch, most Americans are unable to access custom snow tires with 700 studs per revolution, and absolutely abhor driving in the snow and ice. All-wheel drive and experience will only get you so far when confronted by a sheet of black ice or a steep, slush-covered ascent.

So in order to help keep you safe and smart on the roads this winter, we’ve put our heads together in order to compile a list of tips designed to keep you protected when Old Man Winter’s wrathful path crosses you wrong. While experience driving in the snow is important, preparedness can mean the difference between a quick trip to the store for some spicy Cheetos and a nightmarish chain of events punctuated by frostbite and cannibalism.

1. Ease-up on those pedals, people

winter driving
A school bus drives along a highway in a snow storm in Brooklyn on March 5, 2015 in New York City during one of the most severe winters in recent history | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Too often we see people acting like their cars are going to act the same in the snow as they do in summertime, often with disastrous results. By slowly and steadily accelerating, you can gradually gain traction without a ton of wheel-spin, and while it may take a little more muscle than normal in order to get up to speed, going full throttle can create a world of headache.

Once up to speed, be sure to give yourself extra time if a stoplight shows itself, because locking up the brakes is only going to cause the people behind you to panic. While anti-lock brakes and emergency braking technology do a great job of bringing you to a halt in dry conditions, there’s only so much they can do on a bed of solid ice. By feathering the throttle and then doing the same with the brakes, safely accelerating and stopping can be achieved with a little practice and concentration.

2. Hauling ass might land you in a cast

BURLINGTON, VT - FEBRUARY 05: Pedestrians and cars contend with heavy snow on February 5, 2014 in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington, and much of the Northeast, received another mix of wintery weather on Wednesday causing traffic accidents and hundreds of flight cancelations. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Pedestrians and cars contend with heavy snow on February 5, 2014 in Burlington, Vermont | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even in the most hardcore 4×4 or all-wheel drive automobile, every aspect of driving is going to take a lot longer than in the dry. This doesn’t just apply to accelerating, but turning, reversing, stopping, and parking as well. Always factor in some extra wiggle-room if you plan on hitting winter-swept roads; this way you don’t feel the need to drive too fast in order to make it somewhere on time.

3. Pay attention but act spacey

A blinding snowstorm demands additional distance between cars to prevent accidents | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

According to AAA, “the normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds” when driving on icy or snow-covered roads. By giving yourself an increased margin of safety, you can be better prepared in case the person in front of you suddenly slams on their brakes in order to avoid a baby moose.

4. You’re really only as good as your brakes

EBC dimpled rotors with Redstuff pads, Fastline stainless brake lines, and Motul brake fluid. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
EBC dimpled rotors with Redstuff pads, Fastline stainless brake lines, and Motul brake fluid | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are one of the most influential pieces of automotive safety equipment to emerge in the past century behind turn signals, airbags, and seat belts. By rapidly pulsating the brakes during slippery situations, this standard feature slows you down much more quickly than without, where all four wheels tend to lock-up and cause the vehicle to continue sliding.

But this chattering/vibrating lifesaver still depends upon brake pads and rotor discs for stopping power, and just like power tools, higher quality brakes often tend to work better, last longer, and come with superior warranties. If you don’t want to spend a ton on high performance components, we recommend looking toward companies like Wagner and its Thermoquiet line.

5. Be sure to have the right rubber

Bridgestone Blizzak tires remain without question one of the best winter tire options on the market today. | Bridgestone
The Bridgestone Blizzak tires on the left remain one of the best winter tire options on the market today, as opposed to the sticky high performance Potenza rubber on the right, which is also excellent, but is solely designed for warm climates | Bridgestone

Traction can only be defined by the kind of rubber hitting the road beneath you, and just like brakes, a lot can be said for sporting some quality components. We’ve covered the importance of owning a dedicated set of skinnier winter wheels and tires for slicing through the snow before, but it really makes a massive difference in driving performance.

While we would love to own a set of compounds with 700 studs per wheel on a brand-new Ford Raptor, practicality, legalities, affordability, and sizing are an issue for everyone else. We suggest researching what the right setup for your needs are and then checking with a few different tire vendors when it’s warm out to see what kinds of deals are being offered. Remember, while all-season tires are engineered to tackle many kinds of conditions, they are also a compromise in that they do not specialize in one particular type of traction mode, with snow and ice being their Achilles’ heel most of the time.

6. Powering up hills will get you nowhere

A novice driver jerks the wheel sharply and stalls out while trying to ascend a snowy hill in winter. | Micah Wright/Cheat Sheet
A novice driver jerks the wheel sharply and stalls out while trying to ascend a snowy hill in winter | Micah Wright/Cheat Sheet

While charging up a steep incline may sound like a guaranteed way to get to its snowy summit, hitting the throttle in an overly aggressive manner will more than likely just cause you to spin your wheels. If you can get some inertia going prior to reaching the base of the hill it might be just enough to carry you to the top, at which point you should let off the throttle and slowly plod onward. Fishtailing around atop an overzealous throttle creates a very dangerous situation the moment your tires gain a patch of traction, causing you to rocket forward at a moment’s notice with little chance of stopping.

7. But neither will stopping on a hillside

To this day the first generation Acura RDX retains one of the best all-wheel drive setups for snow, even over its larger MDX sibling. | Micah Wright/Cheat Sheet
To this day, the first generation Acura RDX retains one of the most acclaimed all-wheel drive setups for snow, even over its larger MDX sibling | Micah Wright/Cheat Sheet

If you already have some inertia working in your favor and momentum is moving you slowly but surely upward, don’t hit the brakes or lay-off the throttle. The moment you release that accelerator, chances are your entire ascension plan is going to go up in smoke, and then you’ll be left with two unpleasant options. Either back down the slippery slope and try all over again, or park your ride on the side of the street and hoof it to your destination.

8. Prepare thyself!

Having a bag of dissolving salt, a snow shovel, and a vehicle scraper on hand still makes for a mighty automotive toolbelt trifecta. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Having a bag of dissolving salt, a snow shovel, and a vehicle scraper on hand makes for a simple but effective automotive trifecta | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The basics, like a shovel, bags of melting salt, a scraper, and some thermal undies, are just a fraction of the stuff you can fit in the modern CUV. Place some mid-size blankets, a double-lined canteen full of water, an extra set of gloves, power bars, a lighter, and a few road flares in a crate in the back for a more full-feeling tool belt. It may seem like overkill right now, but when you blow a flat on the side of a rural road in February, that self-addressed care package is going to look like a godsend.

9. Can’t stop, won’t stop

stranded car
A snowed covered car sits roadside in the woods north of Umea in Northern Sweden on February 18, 2012 | Rolf Hojer/AFP/Getty Images

Physics teaches us that the amount of inertia and energy required to start moving from a standstill is a hell of a lot more than when a vehicle is already in motion. Slowing down in small increments well ahead of a stoplight and timing the light just right could mean the difference between bridging the gap and looking stranded in an intersection. Planning ahead and keeping your eyes peeled ensures that you can keep that multi-ton heap safely moving forward.

10. Or maybe just don’t ever start

shoveling snow
Women shovel their driveways during a major snowstorm in Manassas, Virginia, where the biggest storm of 2014 shut down the federal government, local schools, courts and government offices, airports, and Metros bus service | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Our final tip is without question the most effective. Calling off work for the day, postponing a run to the store, or rescheduling that dinner meeting could mean the difference between a day filled with shoveling and playing in the snow, or a weekend in the ICU. Remember, there are entirely too many people out there who have never read the guide on driving etiquette. Just because you feel like the Abominable Snowman in your Subaru doesn’t mean they aren’t going to clip your ass on the way to the 7/11.