Let me begin with a disclaimer. There is no way I can cover all of the hazards of winter driving here but, hopefully, I can cover some of the main obstacles you will encounter. Your best teacher is experience, and you just have to hope that the experiences you have are survivable and that you can learn quickly from them. You must get the “feel” of your vehicle.

The difference between summer and winter driving has to do with road-surface and friction or traction. In the summer, we basically have three types of surface to consider: various grades of gravel, dry or wet asphalt or concrete. There are some other considerations that come into play like transmission type, front, rear or all-wheel drive, weight and the type of equipment installed on your vehicle. That’s it. BEWARE! The biggest fatal collisions in winter occur on sunny days!

Winter has a whole variance of conditions and surfaces to consider. Those mentioned above and those affected by temperature, moisture, thickness and rigidity of that moisture. Terms like road spray, slick ice, hard ice, snow, slush, thick snow, snow drifts, snow plow berms and hard snow banks all fit into this category. As drivers, we have constant decisions to make, not just about our driving but, what surface we’re driving on and what changing conditions are taking place as we move along. Often, visibility, lighting or shadows play a key part too.

So, winter driving takes much more brain power to handle and your brain has to be in gear as well as that of the vehicle. Your brain has to be active long before you get near your vehicle. Besides the usual vehicle pre-check, weather reports, particularly temperature, becomes vital to your plans. Traffic reports and routing may enter the equation. If you have the opportunity, practice handling your vehicle in snow on an open lot before venturing out. Test traction: stop, go and slide.

Make sure you clean the vehicle off so that you can see all available directions. Mechanics will tell you that starting the engine and immediately driving won’t hurt your vehicle. They may be right but, I have always insisted on warming up until you are getting warm air coming up through your windshield vents. Otherwise, you will likely get a few feet and have to stop because you still can’t see due to inside vapour. Bright sunshine in the eyes is the worst when this happens.

One enormous clue that you have is that when the road spray stops, you’re on ice. You know and must adjust for ramps, bridges, exits and shadows that freeze first. Slow down before these places and coast straight through them without making any sudden moves. Wind, weight change, brake freezing, overpass heights and slopes will change the dynamics of your vehicle. Snow on the pavement raises your height so, if your roof clearance is tight, be careful.

Before and after intersections are likely to be icy. Car drivers love to spin their tires making more ice. Road surfaces built directly over hard rock faces will freeze first. (Canadian Shield).

Use your engine to control the vehicle instead of braking where you can. Gearing down provides much better control for winter driving. Know that your normal stopping distance has lengthened significantly. Your vehicle should be straight before using trailer brakes and remember your weight is increasing as snow and ice accumulate under the vehicle.

You will encounter “snow plow parades” and you are better to stay winter scenebehind them rather than taking a chance on passing. You know they do relatively short sections along political boundary lines before turning off. They will create snow berms at exits. Stay straight to hit those and be expecting them to throw your vehicle to one side so keep steady power to your drive wheels and be ready to correct with the steering until you are completely through.

The number one rule of thumb in winter is to is to drive slow enough that you can see and keep control, drive smoothly all the times, make no sudden moves and stay off the brakes. Try to get the longest visibility you can and know that inexperienced drivers will create hazards directly in-front-of-you.

Be visible yourself. LED tail lights usually are not hot enough to melt snow so clean them frequently. If you step out of your vehicle, make sure you are visible to others. Safety vests are good but, strobe lights attached to you are better.

Remember, there are no guarantees! You are on your own out there so be as prepared as possible and think before you make any moves. Learn your own moves but learn everybody else’s moves as well because the stupid ones will make them again and again. You can’t fix stupid.
Keep your people safe.

The beauty of life is in your hands.

About the Author

Nick Nicholson, is a retired safety practitioner who spent many years researching the human behaviour factors of driver and pedestrian actions. Specifically, he spent 25 of those years devoted to highway crash investigations, regulatory compliance, the design, implementation and presentation of safety programs. Nick enjoyed many hours presenting professional driver enhancement training to adult participants.

As a long time Fleet Safety Council Member (1988) and the Founding Chair (1992-1995) of Council’s Hamilton-Niagara Chapter, he presents his opinions in hopes of improving the safety knowledge of readers. Nick is a firm believer in human advancement through positive attitudes, solution thinking and the understanding that the beauty of life is always in your hands.

Old Uncle Nicky’s Opinions are his own and in no way reflect the opinions of Fleet Safety Council