Winter is a fact of life and with it comes a unique mix of challenging driving conditions. Many of us rely the weather reports, or consult the highway hotline; but often times winter weather conditions can be unpredictable. It’s important not to be caught unprepared.
Preparing For a Trip
- Plan your route in advance.
- Ensure you’re well rested.
- Check provincial road reports to get updates on road conditions in the area you plan to travel.
- Check weather conditions for your travel route before you depart.
- Gauge your arrival time, allowing for potential delays.
- Let someone know your route and estimated arrival time.
- Take along warm, comfortable clothing. You want to be comfortable; but not too warm or you could get drowsy. If you have additional warm clothing on hand you can add or remove layers as needed. Be sure to pull your vehicle over in a safe spot to do so.
- Allow your vehicle to warm up before driving. Never warm up the vehicle in a closed garage.
- Remove snow and ice. Don’t forget to check the wheel wells and mud flaps. A buildup of snow or ice there can hamper your ability to steer properly.
- Snow reflects the sunlight. Sunglasses can help reduce the glare.
- Take your cell phone along; but don’t leave it in a cold vehicle, as the battery will freeze.
Your vehicle should be properly maintained and equipped for driving in Canadian winter conditions. The previous article entitled, “How to Get Your Vehicle Ready for Winter”, discusses the importance of a comprehensive winter check-up and winter tires.
Fill up with fuel before you leave on your trip and don’t let the fuel level drop too low. If something happens on the road, the car engine may be your only source of heat.
Winter Weather Conditions
The biggest source of frustration for most drivers is the winter weather conditions. Snow, ice, wind, slush, cold, poor visibility… all of these conditions can be challenging for winter drivers. If you’re not yet familiar with the terminology, we’ve provided a list of common winter weather terms below.
Blizzard: A severe snowstorm with high winds and low visibility.
Heavy Snowfall: A minimum of 10 centimeters within 12 hours OR 15 centimeters in 24 hours.
Freezing Rain: Rain that falls when surface temperatures are below freezing, resulting in ice covered roads.
Cold Snap: A sudden and rapid drop in temperature.
Winds: High winds can create blizzard conditions and poor visibility; however, wind-chill can be a hazard in and of itself. The air feels colder, due to the chilling effect of the wind on your skin. Most often, you’ll hear the weather forecaster say something like: “The temperature is minus 30 degrees; but, with the wind chill it feels like minus 40 degrees.” There are very real dangers associated with wind chill, if you do not have the proper clothing and supplies on hand.
Black Ice: This is a thin layer of glazed, clear ice, which is virtually transparent. Its transparency makes black ice very difficult to see. Watch for a shiny road surface and be cautious of bridges, overpasses, and shaded areas, as the road freezes more quickly in those areas and stays frozen long after sun rise.
Slush: This is a slurry of wet snow that can sometimes build up in the wheel wells of your vehicle and affect your ability to steer properly. Additionally, other vehicles can spray slush onto your windshield, hampering your vision.
Good Winter Driving Habits
- Always wear your seatbelt and ensure child seats are properly secured.
- Slow down. Posted speed limits apply to ideal driving conditions. We don’t often experience ideal driving conditions in winter.
- Stay alert. Pavement should be grayish white in winter. If the asphalt is shiny, there is black ice.
- Do not use cruise control.
- When approaching intersections, reduce your speed. They’re often icy and the ice can be hidden by a layer of snow.
- Allow extra travel time. Driving appropriately for winter weather conditions often means driving slower.
- Use your low beam headlights to make your vehicle more visible. This will also activate your tail lights and low beams are brighter than daytime running lights.
- Back off. Lengthen the following distance between you and the vehicle ahead. The stopping distance in icy conditions is double that of dry conditions.
- Stay in the right hand lane unless you’re passing another vehicle.
- Use signal lights when changing lanes.
- Aggressive driving and winter roads don’t mix. Use smooth, calculated movements when steering and braking.
- Heed the warning signs. Signs posting icy conditions on bridges and overpasses indicate that you need to reduce your speed and proceed with caution.
- Winter weather can be unpredictable. If you find the weather is getting worse, consider getting off the road, rather than becoming stranded.
- Be patient.
What to do if you start to skid
- Remain calm.
- Steer in the direction you want your vehicle to go.
- Do not brake.
- Do not accelerate. You want to decrease the forward momentum of the vehicle, in order to stop faster.
- Using winter tires and driving at a reduced speed will improve your stopping distance.
How to brake on a slippery road
With anti-lock brakes, keep your heel on the floor and hold your toe on the brake pedal until your vehicles comes to a complete stop. The anti-lock brake system will do all the hard work, leaving you to concentrate on steering.
Without anti-lock brakes, you’ll keep your heel on the floor and hold your toe on the brake pedal firmly and just short of locking up the wheels. Then, release the pressure on the pedal. Repeat the process until you stop.
What to do if you’re stuck in the snow
- Remain calm.
- Phone for help, if needed, and give clear directions as to your location, your vehicle description, and your condition.
- Shovelling snow is hard work. Add cold weather to the mix and you’re putting additional stress on your heart. Stay in the vehicle, if you’re not able to shovel the vehicle out.
- Do your best to keep your clothing as dry as possible.
- If you’re stuck in blizzard conditions, stay with the vehicle. It’s very easy to lose your bearings in a blizzard so, unless help is very close and it’s a short, safe walk, stay with your vehicle.
- Turn on your ceiling light (leaving headlights or hazards on too long will drain the battery), set up flares, or tie a brightly colored marker on the antenna.
- Ensure that the tail pipe is free of snow.
- Determine the direction of the wind and crack a window on the side shielded from the wind.
- Run the engine about 10 minutes each hour to provide heat.
- Bundle up with a blanket or additional warm clothing, paying careful attention to the head and neck area.
- If there is more than one person in the vehicle, share body heat.
- Light a candle inside a deep can, if you have those supplies on hand.
- Do not fall asleep. Take sleep shifts, if there is more than one adult in the vehicle.
- Watch for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.
- Keep your circulation going by moving your arms and legs and clapping your hands.
- Keep an eye out for traffic or emergency vehicles.
What To Include in a Winter Driving Kit
- Energy bars and hard candies
- Drinking water
- Blanket or sleeping bag
- Warm clothing, head wear and boots. Wind pants.
- First aid kit, including prescription medicine and/or medical supplies for an existing medical condition
- Emergency escape tool: Seatbelt cutter/window breaker
- Small shovel, scraper/snow brush
- Candle in a deep can. Matches or lighter. Only use with a window slightly opened to prevent buildup of carbon monoxide.
- Crank style flashlight. This is a better option than battery operated. Batteries freeze and the movement needed to generate light on a crank style flashlight is good for your circulation.
- Road maps and/or GPS
- Traction material such as sand, cat litter, or traction strips. Sometimes car mats will work in a pinch. Also, if you have a front wheel drive vehicle, avoid putting excess weight in the rear of the vehicle, as this will actually reduce traction.
- Booster cables
- Tow rope
- Tool kit
- Tire gauge
- Spare tire (ensure it has proper tire pressure)
- Tire-changing tools
- Fire extinguisher
- Fluorescent cones/markers, flares, or emergency lights
- Fuel line antifreeze
- Windshield washer fluid rated for cold temperatures
- Spare windshield wipers
- Roll of paper towels and/or clean rags
- “Call Police” or other help signs.
Drive and arrive safely!