As winter sets in throughout the Northeast, unpredictable weather will make driving more difficult and, in some cases, dangerous. Harsh conditions can be challenging for even the most cautious driver, with heavy snow, black ice, and slick roads likely to put your driving skills to the test. Many serious accidents are caused by motorists going too fast for the weather conditions or vehicles that are not quite winter-ready.
The good news is that there are a lot of common-sense steps you can take to keep yourself and your passengers safe. Here are our best tips for navigating winter weather and preventing car accidents.
Take Steps to Winterize Your Vehicle
Safe driving in cold weather begins before you even hit the road. Winterizing your car means ensuring you enter the season with a dependable vehicle. This process is critical because maintenance issues can often make the difference between getting through winter safely or being in an accident. Just as we must bundle ourselves up to handle cold weather, your car will also need some physical preparation.
Check your car battery
Winter puts much strain on your battery because it must work extra hard to keep your car running. When it is cold outside, your car’s engine needs more power to start, and cold weather also makes your battery less efficient at producing that power. Also, many kinds of motor oil get thicker in cold weather, which makes it more difficult for the battery and starter to ignite the engine. Overall, you will want to ensure your battery is in good working condition before extreme weather sets in.
Give your brakes some maintenance
Keep your brakes in good working order by having them inspected regularly by a licensed technician, per the vehicle’s recommended maintenance plan. You shouldn’t depend excessively on your brakes while driving on snow and ice, but you want to ensure they will function when needed.
Stopping safely in snow and slush is even tougher than driving, making uneven braking a common cause of wintertime accidents. You should also keep your brake fluid at the right levels to help you have maximum control of your vehicle in critical situations.
Upgrade to winter tires
One of the most important factors for driving in cold weather is having proper winter tires, which provide better traction on snow and ice and improve the car’s braking performance. Along with their aggressive tread, the rubber in winter tires is developed to be softer to grip the asphalt better when it’s cold.
It’s also crucial to check your tire pressure regularly throughout the winter because it drops by around one pound for every 10 degrees that the temperature falls. Your tire pressure should be adjusted more often for better grip and performance.
Verify your vehicle’s fluid levels
As the name implies, you will need enough antifreeze in your car’s engine to protect your vehicle from extreme temperatures. Antifreeze only needs to be adjusted every 30,000 miles, but if it has been a while since doing this essential form of maintenance, you will want to take care of it before winter sets in. The same goes for you, checking that you have enough brake fluid, windshield wiper fluid, and quality oil for your engine. These are all small issues that can become potential hazards under the difficult road conditions that winter will bring.
Make sure your lights are in good working order
With days about to get shorter, your vehicle lighting will be essential to help you see the road and also be seen by others. Check that your headlights, brake, signaling, and tail lights are all functioning. Along with having working bulbs, the clarity of your lights can significantly impact visibility, so you should replace or repair any lenses that go cloudy.
Stock Your Car for Winter Emergencies
Preparing your car with a winter driving kit is a big part of staying safe on the road during cold weather emergencies.
Whether you have a car accident, your vehicle breaks down, or you end up stuck in the snow, you will feel grateful to have these essentials on hand:
- An ice scraper and snow brush: Add these basic tools to your car as soon as it gets colder because winter weather is very unpredictable. A sudden storm can leave your car covered in snow or ice and significantly affect your visibility.
- A shovel: Having a small or foldable shovel in your trunk is incredibly helpful for clearing your way after parking in a spot that gets snowed or your vehicle falls into a snowbank.
- A high-quality, weatherproof flashlight: This tool will come in handy if you need to look under your hood or change a tire after dark.
- Emergency flares or reflective triangles: If you are stopped by the side of the road because of car trouble, putting out reflectors is one of the best ways to stay safe in a potentially risky situation. Daylight hours are much shorter in the wintertime, and snowstorms can make it much harder to be seen by fellow motorists.
- Sand, rock salt, or cat litter: These coarse materials can boost your tires when you are in a slippery situation, stuck in the snow, or have another issue where you need a better grip.
- Blankets, non-perishable snacks, bottled water, and a battery-operated charger: Getting trapped in the snow, possibly with a dead battery, is a worst-case scenario that can and does happen, leading to a cold and stressful experience. Your winter emergency kit should have items that can help improve this situation, such as blankets, water, snacks, and a phone charger so you can call for help and stay in communication.
- A set of power jumper cables: If your car batteries die after being in the cold for an extended amount of time, you will not even be able to use the heater to stay warm while waiting for assistance. Having your jumper cables can save you time, discomfort, and the cost of a AAA service trip.
- A first aid kit: Having some basic medical supplies in the glove compartment or your car is a good idea all year. If you do not already have one, the beginning of winter is a good time to stock up. You can buy a prepared kit or create your own with items like band-aids, antiseptic, medical tape, an ice pack, and other supplies to help make an injury more manageable.
Best Practices to Follow All Winter Long
Winter driving can be tricky, even for very experienced drivers. Staying safe requires preparation, awareness, and a focus on prevention. Some of the broad habits that can help you navigate adverse winter conditions include:
Drive More Slowly
Expect trips to take longer throughout the winter and give yourself the extra time to slow down, adjust to the road conditions, and arrive at your destination safely. It is much more challenging to keep your car under control when operating on snowy, slushy roads with treacherous ice patches, and the task gets even harder with faster speeds or quick maneuvers. It also takes substantially longer for a car to come to a complete stop when going over snow.
Slowing down, accelerating gradually, and making turns carefully are all very helpful for reacting to an unexpected hazard while lowering the chances of skidding. If your car has four-wheel drive, do not get lulled into a false sense of security on slippery roads. 4×4 vehicles are heavier than regular cars, so they often take longer to stop.
Be careful with lane changes
Safe winter driving includes staying in your lane whenever possible. Making an abrupt lane change is never safe, but doing so on slick, icy roads is even more potentially dangerous. It startles other drivers, does not leave enough reaction time for the driving conditions, and can easily lead to a serious collision.
Increase your following distance
A car’s stopping distance gets longer during severe weather, and you can’t brake too suddenly without losing control of the vehicle. For safer winter driving, you should leave plenty of space between your vehicle and the one in front. The standard following distance is two seconds behind, but increasing the gap to eight seconds is recommended during winter.
Use headlights and indicators
Visibility is a major issue during colder weather and is the root cause of many accidents. When navigating ice, snow, fog, or rain, make good use of directional indicators before turning left or right. It’s recommended to use headlights even during the day under low-light conditions, allowing the cars behind to judge their distance better and avoid a collision on slick roads. It’s as much about helping other vehicles see you as it is about lighting the way for yourself.
Maintain a safe following distance from snow plows and salt trucks
If you find yourself behind a snow plow, salting truck, or other winter services vehicle, do not get too close and never try to overtake them. The field of vision for the operators of these vehicles is often very narrow, especially for snow plows. If you don’t have a clear view of their mirrors, then the driver likely would not be able to see you either. There are many scenarios with these vehicles that can potentially unfold into an accident, such as when the de-icing materials used on the road strike your car or the cloud thrown up by snow plows obliterates your visibility.
Don’t use your cruise control
Turning on cruise control should be avoided during winter weather, especially on slick roads, because it takes your focus away from carefully navigating the road. That means it slows down reaction times and can potentially be very disruptive. Cruise control can cause an accident by continuing to accelerate in moments when the car’s wheels are losing traction across an unexpectedly slippery patch. If you tap on the brakes to deactivate cruise control at this point, it can even lead to losing control of the vehicle.
Avoid all possible distractions
Staying focused on the road while driving is always essential, but it is even more crucial during bad weather when the risks of getting into an accident are so much higher. Under challenging road conditions, the best course of action is to focus your eyes firmly on the road and maintain both hands on the wheel. Using a smartphone is one of the most obvious distractions, but it is not the only potential danger.
Safe winter driving should also include
- Not eating or drinking,
- Having in-depth conversations with your passengers, and
- Anything else that could affect your reaction time when it counts.
Keep up with the weather
Knowing what to expect is half the battle when navigating extreme winter weather. Check the weather forecast often enough to have a good sense of the major updates, like unpredictable storms and potential disruptions to your normal routine, such as road closures. This information can help you take the right precautions and make safe travel decisions that help you avoid the worst of it.
During extreme weather, stay home if you can
The most effective way to avoid getting into a weather-related accident is to avoid unnecessary driving when the roads are terrible due to a serious winter storm. If you do not need to get somewhere, staying home and scheduling your plans for another day is better.
What to do if you still get into an accident
Car accidents are painful and difficult at any time of year, and they are often caused by negligence or other factors outside your control. The aftermath of being in an accident will include navigating physical pain, major expenses, and a complicated process of recovering compensation. Talking to an experienced personal injury attorney can guide you and support you will need to protect your legal rights.