Winter Driving: Safety, Tips and the Law

Whether or not you've been informed by a little groundhog to expect an additional six weeks of winter, you probably view winter as a tough season all around. Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced firsthand or saw news coverage of winter storms bringing cities and counties to a virtual standstill. Whether you live in a winter weather state or are just visiting, snow and other winter weather can drastically effect your ability to get around and keep to your plans. Learning some basic driving safety measures and coping tips can help alleviate some of the aggravation. Although varying by state, understanding winter related laws or ways laws are interpreted to include winter conditions is vital to enjoying a safe winter. In this article you'll find safety information that we hope will be useful and that will keep you safe and warm this winter.

Winter Driving Safety & Tips

  • Winter Inspection: Prepare you car ahead of time for winter road conditions. Check the levels of antifreeze, oil and wiper fluid. Examine your windshield wipers for wear and replace them if necessary.
  • Got Wheels? Review your tire tread. If you get snow tires or studs, get your appointment scheduled before the tire stores are inundated. If you are in a state where you may use chains or cables, inspect these when you pull them out of storage. Take time to review how to put them on before the snow comes.
  • Journey Prep: Before driving out into a winter wonderland, make sure you are prepared. Clear you car of any snow and ice so you can see clearly - this includes any snow around your headlights and break lights. How much gas is in the tank? If you are getting low, plan your route to make this your first stop. Stop and consider your physical condition, are you awake and alert?
  • WEK: Don't be weak - have an Winter Emergency Kit! Some items to include in your kit are:
    • First Aid Kit
    • Travel Tool Kit
    • Blankets
    • Gloves, Hat, Scarf, Sweatshirt, etc.
    • Jumper Cables
    • Flashlight and Spare Batteries
    • Road Flares
    • Matches
    • Sand and/or Salt
    • Ice Scraper and Snow Brush
    • Small Shovel
    • Water
    • Energy Bars or Other High Calorie Foods (Nonperishable)
    • Cell Phone and Charger
  • Dress for Success: As we hop from one heated building to the next, we don't often consider how we are dressed for the winter weather. Adjust your wardrobe for unexpected winter weather. If you insist on traveling in the car in flip flops because the are comfy, make sure you pack thick socks and hiking boots in the back seat in case your car does break down. Dress in layers and have spare gloves, a hat, and a scarf in the car.
  • Know before you go! Check for road condition updates and possible closures. Before driving in winter weather make certain to check the local forecast. Some of the key weather words are:
  • S-L-O-W: Everything slows down: accelerate slower, brake slowly, turn slowly, and travel at slower speeds. Enter the time warp willingly and keep your patience and wits about you. Trying to rush through anything during poor winter weather is the number one reason people slide off roads or skid into other cars.
  • Personal Bubble: Allow those around you plenty of space. Do not crowd other cars and increase the car lengths between you and the next car.
  • It's Ice Ice Baby! If there is ice rain the best option is not to be on the road period. But there are other patches of ice and black ice that may pop up when you consider the roads drivable again. Keep in mind that ice forms quickest on bridges and overpasses. Also, as the temperatures begin to rise the thawing ice will be much slicker as it melts. If you see the ice ahead of time keep your speed slow. DO NOT hit the breaks! If you suddenly can't hear the road, often the case if you hit black ice, continue forward and take your foot off the accelerator. DO NOT hit the breaks!
  • Look Up! Many times the winter weather makes us concentrate on the road in front of us so much that we forget to look ahead. During this weather is exactly when you should be looking up and ahead; look farther then you may normally. This will give you more time to react to possible sliding cars or hazards in front of you.
  • Keep it on Main Street: Plan your routes on main roads. These will be traveled more and are the first to be cleared and sanded.
  • Share the Road: Give plows and sanders plenty of space. Three car lengths is the standard suggestion. Be patient, many will get over to let traffic pass. Always pass with extreme caution and never pass them on the right as that is where all the sludge is going!
  • Double Your Time: As a general rule, double your travel time for all your commutes and usual destinations.
  • Tell Your Peeps: Let others know of your travel plans - especially for long distances or during a weather event. Let either family or friends know where your are going and the route you expect to take.
  • No Cruising: As you shouldn't in heavy rain, do not use cruise control on winter roads. If you begin to slide you may not be able to get out of cruise control quickly. Also, depending on the slide/skid, tapping the break may be the last thing you should do!
  • Find Your Pack: Have a commute group for severe weather. You can alternate drivers as you battle the extra stress and fatigue of driving in bad weather. Encourage it in your community and this can help keep more cars off the road.
  • Think Outside Your Car: Consider other modes of transportation altogether. If available, consider the bus or train. Get really inventive - do you like to cross country ski? Just stay on the sidewalk!
  • Flex Time: Check to see if you employer will let you change your hours or work from home. Wait until the plows have had a chance to move through the neighborhood and go in late. Or plug in the computer and work in your PJs and fuzzy slippers.
  • The Great Melt: Still be cautious after the snow begins to melt away. Puddles can easily be hiding monster potholes that grew under the ice during the storm. Not only jarring these can do some real damage to your car. Besides potholes, be careful of hydroplaning as well. As the water melts it may be caught between mounds of slush leaving the perfect amount of water to send your tires for a little ride.
  • If the Worst Happens: "If a blizzard traps you in your car, pull off the road, set hazard lights to flashing, and hang a distress flag from the radio aerial or window. Remain in your vehicle; rescuers are most likely to find you there. Conserve fuel, but run the engine and heater about ten minutes each hour to keep warm, cracking a downwind window slightly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Exercise to maintain body heat but don't overexert. Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket. In extreme cold use road maps, seat covers, floor mats, newspapers or extra clothing for covering--anything to provide additional insulation and warmth. Turn on the inside dome light so rescue teams can see you at night, but be careful not to run the battery down. In remote areas, spread a large cloth over the snow to attract the attention of rescue planes. Do not set out on foot unless you see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Once the blizzard is over, you may need to leave the car and proceed on foot. Follow the road if possible. If you need to walk across open country, use distant points as landmarks to help maintain your sense of direction." ( Tips provided by FEMA )

Legal Concerns

  • The Car Snowball: When your car is covered with snow it makes for safer driving if you clear all the snow off - but are you required to legally? Technically, in most states, there is not a "snow on the car" law. Instead, other laws may be interpreted to include snow. Be safe and get your car uncovered completely so you can clearly see around you and don't inadvertently cause hazards.
    • In many states you can be cited if your windshield, rear window and windows are obstructed so you cannot see the road. This is often interpreted to include snow, ice and fog that disrupt the drivers view.
    • How about the snow on your roof or hood that you left there? In many states you will not be cited for this alone, however, if this snow flies off and damages another car (i.e. smacks into and cracks the windshield of the car behind you) then you are liable for any damages.
      Some states are clever and cite snow falling from your car as littering!
    • While you are at it, make sure to clear any snow from your headlights and break lights. This not only helps you light your path, but no doing so may be a citation waiting to happen in some states.
  • Snow tires, studs, and chains, oh my!
    SNOW TIRES: Standard in many snowy states usually there are not penalties for having these tires on past a certain date. Check with your local tire stores as they will often store your summer tires during the winter season and vice versa.
    STUDDED TIRES: States that allow these tires for winter travel often have a set timeline when they may be used (i.e. In Alaska they may be on by September 15th and are due off by May 1st - most states in the lower 48 will have a shorter time allotment). This information can be found at your state Department of Transportation website (see list to the right)
    CHAINS: Especially if traveling in mountainous states, learn if chains are often required, make sure you have them and learn how to put them on before you go. Some flat states also allow chains under certain conditions. Check with your state Department of Transportation for specific requirements or limitations.
    The following YouTube video illustrates how to put on cable style chains. It is sponsored by the Oregon Department of Transportation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8RVbDuyOcY):

SAFE WINTER DRIVING!

Check out your State Department of Transportation website for state-specific information:

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