Driving on Snow and Ice

Driving on snow and ice presents many challenges, but most of them can be overcome with a little knowledge, skill and experience.

The key is to start learning at your convenience and in a location where you can safely experiment a bit, and not when you find yourself on snow and ice with other drivers.

To be successful, we need to understand some basic concepts about weather conditions, road conditions and how snow and ice behave. This will allow us to better appreciate how we should drive.

Winter Weather

When temperatures get to around freezing, you can anticipate the formation of ice on the roads if there is moisture present. Moisture can come from many sources. Consider rain, snow, fog, dew, frost, a pile of melting snow, or a tunnel with water seeping into it through the rock and soil.

Moisture can also be brought onto the road surface by passing vehicles. A perfectly dry road may have wet intersections because of cross traffic driving through standing water.

The temperature of the earth can keep water from freezing on the road surface despite below freezing air temperatures, but don't let that fool you. That will only be the case early in the winter season, and it can work in reverse anytime during the season - above freezing air temperatures and light rain on very cold roads can create a sheet of ice.

Road Conditions

A classic road condition to look out for is the bridge up ahead that is covered with ice because there is no earth beneath it to keep it warm like the wet but ice-free road you're traveling on.

Another situation to be aware of is a banked road with piles of snow alongside of it. During the day, the pile melts, and during the night it freezes on the road surface. Such situations can lead to perfectly dry roads with swaths of ice running across them.

If you travel on dirt roads, wet snow mixes with the top layer of dirt to form slimy mud that can send you sliding. Don't count on a dirt or gravel road to provide any more traction than a paved roadway during the winter.

Also be mindful of the surface of a paved road. Is it asphalt or concrete? Is the surface scored or textured for better grip, or is it smooth from all the vehicle traffic? Smoother surfaces become slippery much easier.

How Snow and Ice Behave

Not all snow and ice are created equal. How it's put in place, the weather, and our driving over it all affects it's behavior in relation to our vehicle.

Driving on snow and ice means we're driving on the same material - water in a solid state - just in slightly different forms. Under just the right conditions, your tires can change snow to ice as you drive over it.

Hard packed snow can easily melt on the surface of the road and reform into ice, making ice beneath the snow. Loose snow on ice is very slippery.

With warmer temperatures, the surface of ice can melt, especially as we travel over it with our tires. There is nothing more slippery than wet ice.

Wet snow makes slush. Dry snow makes drifts. Moist snow squirms under your tires like silk. It all behaves differently, so we have to know what we're dealing with and be prepared.

Driving on Snow and Ice

To handle the many and varied challenges that snow and ice present, here is a list of basic winter driving tips that I think you'll find handy.

  • Go slower through snow and ice to maintain traction.

  • Proceed steadily and stay aware of your vehicle operation so you can determine the effects of snow and ice on your ability to maintain traction and control the vehicle.

  • Sudden acceleration, deceleration, downshifting and braking can all cause you to lose traction and have less control of your vehicle. Make changes slowly and carefully, not suddenly.

  • Bitter cold weather tends to improve traction while driving on snow and ice. Temperatures closer to freezing reduce your ability to gain and maintain traction because the weight of your vehicle more easily melts the material as you pass over it.

  • Snow and ice can cause hydroplaning much like water or loose gravel. Treat snow and ice as you would loose material under your tires.

  • Be aware that sunlight, traffic, dropping temperatures in the evening and the warmth of the earth beneath the roadway all affect freezing, thawing and refreezing of snow and ice on the roadway surface. Be mindful that road conditions change throughout the day.

  • Snow tires are helpful to get better traction and handling at slower speeds, but they don't allow driving on snow and ice like one would expect with dry pavement. Studs give you a bit more traction than snow tires.

  • When making turns, try to stay off the brakes. Applying brakes reduces the ability of the front wheels to "track" and when you loose "tracking," you go straight. To regain tracking, straighten up the wheel a bit and get off the brakes. To maintain tracking, slow down sufficiently before making the turn so you can do so without using the brakes, and avoid making unnecessarily tight turns.

  • When you spin your wheels, you're creating your own ice. Resist the temptation to "give it the gas" and simply proceed slowly. Your tires will be much better able to maintain their grip if you use slower speeds and very gentle acceleration.

  • No matter how fast you can eventually get your vehicle moving when driving on snow and ice, the key to a safe speed is your ability to stop when the need arises. Road surfaces covered with snow and ice require at least 10 times the stopping distance as that of a clear and dry roadway.

These are the basics when driving on snow and ice. Keep them in mind and make your own refinements as suggested by your driving experiences. The bottom line when driving on snow and ice is to take it easy until you know what you're dealing with, and then drive conservatively to keep yourself and others safe.

Done with Driving on Snow and Ice, back to Safe Driving

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