What every motorist needs to know about driving in snow

Winter tires are worth the investment, two experts said.

January 30, 2019, 11:02 AM

No one enjoys driving in snowy conditions. It can be nerve-wracking. Inconvenient. And downright dangerous.

There are steps motorists can take to reduce their chances of getting into an accident when the streets are snow-covered or slick with ice. Above all: invest in a good pair of winter tires.

“They’re designed to perform very well in cold temperatures,” Travis Hanson, director of training at Team O’Neil, a rally driving school in northern New Hampshire, told ABC News. Hanson teaches about 100 adults — young and old — each year how to expertly handle their cars in winter.

All season tires, which are standard on new vehicles, can act like hockey pucks when the temps fall below freezing, he explained. The rubber compound in these tires harden, causing the vehicle to slide and lose grip. Winter tires, however, are more dynamic in colder weather. He recommends putting winter tires on a vehicle as early as Nov. 1. Depending on where a motorist lives, these tires can have a shelf life of three years.

And yes, motorists can still drive their sports cars in the snow and sleet — as long as the vehicle has winter tires.

Mikhael Farah, a spokesman with Chevy, advises drivers to schedule maintenance on their vehicle before the bad weather hits.

“Change the oil at the start of each season, get new windshield wipers,” he told ABC News. “Take the car to a dealership for diagnostics.”

Other preparations include checking tire pressure, lights and the vehicle’s battery. Motorists should also keep a snow brush and ice scraper handy, he said, and depending on the forecast, maybe even jumper cables, a flashlight and emergency flares as well.

Added Hanson, “Make sure the vehicle is in its best condition before you head out.”

A car passes on the snow covered road after the blizzard in Chicago, Feb. 9, 2018.
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, FILE

Farah said one of the many misconceptions about winter driving centers on all-wheel drive vehicles.

“Some people think they’re invincible with AWD,” he noted. “People get lulled into a false sense of security. AWD helps you get up and going when there is snow on the ground. But it doesn’t help you stop or turn around the corner.”

Hanson said a rear-wheel vehicle with snow tires would perform better than an AWD one.

Speed also plays an important factor when driving in less than ideal conditions.

“Slow down or go a speed that is reasonable and prudent” in the situation, Hanson said.

“You have to be a lot more precautionary. You have to start braking sooner. Give the car a longer time to respond,” he added.

Farah suggests keeping a three to four car distance between your vehicle and the one in front.

“You never want to tailgate,” he said. “Especially not in slippery conditions.”

Traffic is backed up in all directions at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, west of Salt Lake City, as the canyon experiences intermittent closures during a winter storm, Jan. 21, 2019.
Spenser Heaps/The Deseret News via AP

Even snow tires and driving at low speeds may still not be enough to prevent a car from slipping and sliding when the streets become treacherous. If a driver cannot stop a vehicle, the natural instinct is to pump the brakes. But not on new cars.

“The vehicle’s anti-lock braking system will be more effective” at maintaining control, Hanson said.

Another key tip: don’t target fixate. In other words, if a crash is inevitable “move your eyes to where you want to go,” he said. So stop staring at the car in front of you.

Understanding the weight of one’s vehicle will also help minimize crashes and collisions in hazardous weather, Hanson said.

“Going into a turn, you want the weight on the front two tires,” he explained. “If the rear of the car starts to slide, don’t apply pressure on the brakes — accelerate. You want the weight in the rear. You’re correcting the skid.”

Farah had one final piece of advice for drivers: get rid of distractions.

“People always like to have their phones in their hands when driving,” he said. “Put the phone out of sight — even in the glove compartment. Answer calls or text via steering wheel controls so you can keep your eyes on the road.”

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