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How to Drive During the Winter

We Illinoisans pride ourselves on our resilience to the cold. Harsh winters are nothing new to us; heavy snowfall and coarse windchill as early as October lasting mid-April are a defining part of our identities as midwesterners. However, regardless of whether you’re a lifelong resident or brand new transplant, driving during the peak of winter season in Illinois can be a harrowing and life-threatening experience. Now more than perhaps any other time of the year, it’s important to not only be conscious of the rules of the road, but of how our way of navigating that road is radically altered during the wintertime.

In the interest of keeping everyone on the road this season as safe as possible, here are some best-practice driving tips to see you safely to the other side of spring.

Tips for Driving Short Distances During The Winter

In our previous post, we laid out the many ways you can prepare your vehicle to travel through the winter before peak snowfall. First and foremost, avoid driving during especially adverse conditions if at all possible. Keep your eye out for weather reports before your morning commute or, if you have a smartphone, pin your weather app for hourly updates. If you can’t avoid driving during a snowstorm, either due to work or an important obligation, the most important habit to remember while driving during the winter is to slow your typical driving speed by a quarter of your usual pace. Even the most seasoned of drivers forget these most crucial of traits in the first weeks following an initial snowfall, underestimating sharp turns and steep acceleration spots made more treacherous for the presence of ice and snow build-up. These lapses in concentration can lead to disastrous consequences; plowing into snowbanks, overturning into ditches and, tragically, too often result in fatalities.

Before you leave out, be sure to take time to clear snow and ice off your car, including your windows, mirrors, lights, reflectors, hood, roof and trunk. Also make sure to check your headlights before leaving out and always drive with them on to offer yourself as much visibility as possible. As far as speeding goes, don’t. Decrease your speed and increase your following distance. That means taking more time to accelerate and decelerate slowly. Remember: speed limits were designed for dry roads, not for roads covered in snow and ice. Give yourself as much room as possible, as patches of black ice or even snow drift can throw your vehicle’s momentum into a tailspin. You want as much control over your vehicle as possible — that means keeping your hands on the 9 and 3 mark and give the cruise control a break. As you’re driving around town, be mindful of bridges and overpasses, as they’re commonly the first areas to develop ice buildup and become slicker surfaces due to combined rain and low temperatures.

Another tip that’s not nearly offered as much as it should: stop as rarely as possible. That doesn’t mean peeling through stop lights like a speed demon—- it means being cognizant of your brakes’ resistance threshold and keeping paying attention to the timing of your commute, surrounding traffic, and the frequency of stoplight intersections. There’s a wide difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start a vehicle moving versus how much it takes to keep it moving, especially considering adverse weather conditions. Given that the asphalt will be slippier, If you’re going slow enough and can afford to coast ahead of a stop light cycle, always do so.

When it comes to driving up hills during the winter, don’t try to power up hills the moment you approach them at their base. If you see a particularly steep hill ahead of the road, gradually increase your momentum so you can let that inertia carry you to the top. Also, once you’re going up a hill, don’t stop half-way. Tap the acceleration intermittently to continue momentum, but you should preferably be building momentum before rather than while you’re struggling to compensate uphill.

Tips for Driving Long Distances During The Winter

Much of the advice that applies for short-distance driving during the winter naturally carries over to long-distance car trips. As we’ve mentioned previously, if you can afford to push back an extended road trip to a time after the winter— don’t hesitate, absolutely do so. If that isn’t an option, there are several precautions you need to take in order to ensure as safe a long distance commute in as short a time as possible. Be sure to check the weather reports for both your area and your intended destination several days out before your departure so you can chart out alternative routes and stops at waystations along the way in case of intensified snowfall and wind resistance.

As we stated in our previous post, make sure you’ve taken your car into the shop for a tune-up and packed a reliable survival kit in your trunk before heading out, along with spare canisters of gasoline and wiper solution for emergency situations. Familiarise yourself with whether or not your vehicle has an antilock brake system and learn how to use it properly. Antilock brake systems prevent your wheels from locking up during braking. If you have antilock brakes, apply firm, continuous pressure to the brake pedal. If you don’t have antilock brakes, you may need to pump your brakes if you feel your wheels starting to lock up. All of these details and more may prove critical in an emergency situation, so be sure to read your vehicle’s owner’s manual thoroughly before your departure if you haven’t done so already. Make sure your cell phone is charged, that you have a spare charger in your vehicle, and a spare external battery on top of that in the case that your vehicle charger doesn’t work. If you have to dig your car out of the snow before leaving out, take your time so you don’t inadvertently hurt yourself. With that in mind, keep an extra shovel or two in your trunk in case your vehicle gets caught in a snow pile.

In the case that you do become snow-bound, be sure to stay with your vehicle. It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don’t try to walk in a severe storm. It’s easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost. In case of an emergency, always put your hazard lights on to signal roadside repair assistance. If you’re worried about running out your car battery in the meantime, tie a bright cloth to your antenna head or hang said cloth from a closed window to signal for help.At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you. Also important — make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust pipe could not only choke out any ignition attempts, but could also cause carbon monoxide buildup in your passenger compartment that could prove fatal if left unchecked while the vehicle’s engine is running. Keep an extra set of blankets in your vehicle in case you get stranded, to insulate your body from the cold while awaiting help. If you don’t have extra blankets, use anything else available to you — including floor mats, newspapers, or paper maps — to insulate as much body heat as possible until roadside assistance arrives.

Winter Driving Tips | AAA
Winter Driving Safety Tips | Travelers
Safe Winter Driving Tips | Mass Gov
Winter Driving Survival Guide | Consumer Reports
Safe Winter Driving | OSHA