The holiday season is upon us, and that, in the case of many families, means travel. If you’re planning on using a car for that travel this year, you may be faced with some road conditions you aren’t used to thanks to the global climate change that “isn’t” happening — at least according to the news. For many regions, that unexpected road hazard is snow. Being a life-long resident of Alaska, driving in snow and ice is sort of a life skill you learn if you don’t want to be putting a lot of miles on frozen feet. In the interest of a safe holiday season, I’d like to share some of my experience-gained knowledge on driving in snow.
Being able to stop when driving in snow and on ice
One the biggest issues a driver faces when driving in snow is the inability to stop. If you’re headed for an area with heavy snow fall, or your area is expecting some, you may consider getting studs or chains for your vehicle or at least snow tires with a deeper tread. Otherwise, try to use a four-wheel drive, heavy car or truck. In a pinch, it can help to place weight in your vehicle. For example, a rear-wheel, small, pick-up truck will handle much better with some sandbags tossed in the back.
When driving, double the distance between you and the driver in front of you if possible, more so if you are driving at higher speeds. When stopping, begin by removing your foot from the gas and coast a bit, then pump the brake to slowly reduce speed as your approach the stop, rather than just holding it down until you come to stop or quickly slamming on your breaks. Realize that stopping distance is significantly longer on ice, especially if you don’t have studs or a heavy vehicle. You can expect to slide, just keep pumping the brake; you’ll slow a bit each time. This is important: If you have ABS brakes and you, say, are about to hit something and need to stop now, disregard the recommendation to pump your brakes. This system automatically pulses — in effect, pumping itself — so just put the brake to the floor, and apply steady pressure. You’ll feel the pulsing. When driving in snow and on ice, everything should be done slowly; break slowly, turn slowly, accelerate slowly, stop slowly, drive slowly.
Slips, skid and slides when driving in snow or on ice
The very first thing you should do when you feel your car or truck losing control is remove your foot from the gas or brake and steer in the direction of the skid gradually. Do not crank the wheel as hard and fast as you can or slam your foot on the break. Chances are the car will switch directions as you attempt to regain control; continue to steer following the direction of the skid as it changes until you have reduced in speed enough to regain full control. Avoid braking quickly, but you may brake as the vehicle slows. Above all, avoid over-correcting. In an emergency, if you can’t stop, quickly scan your surroundings for the safest route of travel. For example, landing in a snow-filled ditch is safer than slamming into oncoming traffic.
Being able to see when driving in snow
The next issue is visibility. Heavy snow fall can literally make roads disappear. Before leaving, ensure your windshield is entirely thawed. Avoid what we in Alaska call periscope driving, where you wait for just a tiny circle of windshield to de-ice just above the heater vent and then drive.
If it is actively snowing, use your low beams. High beams will actually decrease visibility as the light reflects off the snow. This is why high beams produce a Star Wars-like visual effect when driving in snow. Remember that speed limits are for ideal driving conditions; don’t be afraid to drive well under the speed limit if it feels safer to you.
If you can’t see the road lines, try to find another vehicle to follow. Their taillights can help you orient yourself on the road, or at least drivable terrain, because hey, the guy in front of you drove over it. Some roads, most roads here in fact, also have a strip indented in the pavement that creates a humming noise when your tires hit it. The point is to wake sleeping drivers, but you can use these strips to ensure you are on the road. In blizzard conditions, I have actually driven riding this line, knowing that as long as I heard humming, I was on the road. If all else fails, go slow — you will have to watch the road directly in front of your car, as well as what you can see at a distance and guess, so to speak, where the road is. If you’re in a smaller car or truck, aim for others’ tracks as it reduces your chance of getting stuck.
Lastly, never be afraid to just pull over. Always be sure you have a emergency pack in your car or truck with road flares, blankets, food, water, jumper cables, first aid, and preferably a cell phone on hand. I hope these tips for driving in snow and on ice have help you have a safe holiday drive, and happy holidays!