2020 Winter Driving Safety Guide: Vital Tips for Driving and Vehicle Preparation

driving in the winter snow

“Driving in cold weather conditions can be dangerous and nerve-wracking,” says Laura Adams, Senior Safety & Education Analyst at DriversEd.com. Anyone who lives in an area where winter brings storms, ice, sleet, or snow can attest to how treacherous the roads can become. 

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, poor road conditions due to bad weather play a role in nearly half a million car crashes in the U.S. and more than 2,000 road deaths each year. Research by the American Highway Users Alliance shows that, annually, 168,300 car crashes occur on slushy road surfaces, 190,100 occur on icy roads, and 225,000 occur during snow and sleet conditions.

To make roads safer, many northern states de-ice their roads with salt. Road salt lowers the freezing point of water, making it more difficult to freeze. It’s one of the most effective ways of reducing ice and snow buildup on roads and preventing accidents. A study by Marquette University revealed that road salt reduces car crashes by 88%, injuries by 85%, and has been shown to reduce accidents on four-lane roads by as much as 93%.

Drivers should also place safety first by ensuring their car is in good condition and taking extra precautions on the road during winter. Here’s our safety guide for driving on winter roads.

Prep Your Car for Winter

There’s nothing worse than having your car break down in the middle of a snowstorm. Snow can build up quickly on a stationary car, making it hard for oncoming vehicles to see it. The first step to staying safe is to winterize your car

Here’s how to get your car winter-ready:

  • Check your tires tread and tire pressure. If you live in a snowy area, switch to snow tires for extra traction on slushy and icy roads.
  • Change the oil to the recommended oil viscosity for winter. Thinner oil flows better in cold weather and helps your car start easier.
  • Top up the antifreeze fluid to prevent the water in your cooling system from freezing. 
  • Check your wiper blades.
  • Make sure the defroster works.
  • Test the battery and, during freezing temperatures, use a battery warmer.
  • Keep a winter emergency kit in your trunk with items like a flashlight, blanket, pair of gloves, ice scraper, and an additional cell phone charger in case you do break down. (see the full list Laura Adams recommends on BestCompany)

Check Weather and Traffic Reports

During winter, it’s always advisable to check the weather and traffic reports before a trip, especially if you live in an area where storms can roll in suddenly. Download an app like INRIX Traffic that suggests the best routes, alerts you to road and weather conditions, and can even determine the ideal departure time. 

Avoid Distractions

Distracted driving kills over 3,000 Americans a year. Your risk of an accident increases during winter when roads are wet and visibility is poor. 

Distracted driving goes beyond just using a cell phone. The 2019 Distracted Driving in America report by DriversEd.com reveals that many drivers admit to engaging in other risky activities behind the wheel, such as smoking cigarettes, vaping, eating and drinking, and using dating apps. Even using today’s in-car technology like touchscreen GPS or infotainment system can be distracting to drivers.

Taking your eyes off the road for just a second may cause you to veer off the road or drive into the back of the car ahead of you. Remember, trying to regain control of a car when roads are slippery is a lot harder. Sending a text message or taking a selfie behind the wheel is never worth risking your life or the lives of others.

Don’t Drive Impaired

Winter is a time of festivities with end-of-year office parties, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s celebrations. Unfortunately, this means more people are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, leading to an increase in fatal car crashes over the holiday season.

When you drive impaired, your ability to react to changes in road conditions is significantly reduced. “Make a promise to yourself that you’ll always stay focused on the road,” says Adams. “The consequences of driving drunk, drugged, drowsy, or distracted could be deadly."

Drive Slowly

When roads are wet or have a layer of ice or snow, your tires can’t grip the surface in the same way they do on a dry road. This means you can lose control of the vehicle more easily and it takes longer to come to a stop when braking. Hitting the brakes too hard can also cause you to go into a dangerous skid. For this reason, it’s important to drive slowly and start braking well ahead of time. Also, plan to leave earlier so that you don’t end up rushing because you're running late.

Stay Home

The best way to stay safe is to stay at home. If the weather report predicts inclement weather, stay off the roads. Ask your boss if you can work from home. If you have appointments or social plans, postpone them. If, however, you are out driving and get caught in a sudden blizzard or storm, pull off the road until visibility improves.

Winter brings additional dangers to road users. To drive more safely, consider taking a defensive driving course that will teach you how to identify potential road hazards and adapt your driving behavior to bad road and weather conditions.