10 Tips for Safe Winter Driving

Experts give their advice for preparing yourself and your car for winter's challenges.

From the WebMD Archives

Jodi Gilman knows about the perils of winter driving all too well. She got in a very scary accident last winter. "Because it was a sunny day I didn't think there was any black ice," says Gilman, a graduate student in Northampton, Mass.

That all changed when she saw the car in front of her spin out of control. She attempted to step on the brakes, but that didn't work. After a terrifying moment of spinning, she ended up safely in a pit, but not without learning a significant lesson. "There was no distance between our vehicles," she says. Gilman was driving at the speed limit, but given the dangerous conditions the limit was just too high.

For many people, the winter months bring snow, ice, and more darkness than light. All of these factors can translate into more dangerous driving conditions. That's why it's important to take the necessary steps to prepare yourself and your vehicle for winter driving.

Taking those steps are the keys to protecting yourself from injury and accidents, says Sara Weis, a representative from the national American Automobile Association (AAA) offices in Washington, D.C. This involves more than just wearing your seatbelt, although that is a good place to start. Here are expert tips for safely tackling winter roads.

Match Speed to Weather Conditions

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the speed limit is always a safe traveling speed in any conditions. "Speed limits are posted for optimal conditions," Weis tells WebMD. "More crashes involving injuries and property damage occur in winter months, and not slowing down is the main concern," she says.

Reducing your speed is the best way to avoid accidents and injuries. This means allowing for extra travel time during your winter workday commute or excursion. You will also need extra time if there is snow and ice to contend with before you step on the gas.

Increase Your Following Distance

Weis says increasing your following distance is also extremely important and a key in preventing collisions. Accidents and injuries often occur because of sudden stops. Leave adequate space between your vehicle and other cars; according to AAA, a following distance of about eight to 10 seconds should suffice.

This will also protect you if the car in front of you is suddenly out of control, as was the case with Gilman. The bottom line: though you should never tailgate, doing so during poor weather is even more dangerous.


Schedule a Checkup for Your Car

You want to make sure your battery has enough juice. Weis says a full battery is required in cold weather. "Battery-related problems are what we see most frequently," says Jason Subocz, the service manager at Pro Lube Oil Change and Tune Up in Northampton, Mass. He recommends that you make sure your battery is fully charged. Also important, says Subocz, is to get your antifreeze checked.

Subocz also recommends that you make sure there is adequate tread on the tires, and check to see that the tires are properly inflated as well. You can have your car checked out at most auto stores and gas stations. You also want to make sure that your headlights and brakes are working properly, says Weis.

Avoid Distractions While Driving

Keep your eyes on the road. Accidents can result from driver distractibility. Studies have found that rubbernecking and cell phone use in cars can put you at greater risk for accidents. During winter months and severe weather, it's even more important that your attention be fully on the road.

Consider Your Age

Your age does matter when it comes to driving because driving-related injuries can spell more serious trouble for older adults. Brittle bones make injuries from accidents more risky for older adults, Weis says. "A younger person can walk away from a crash, but older adults may sustain more serious injuries, so it's important that they are prepared," she says. Both AAA and the American Geriatrics Society have more information about driving safety for older individuals on their web sites, including information that can help you assess whether you should still be driving.

Prepare a Winter Driving Kit for Your Car

Your car should be stocked with certain necessities in case of emergencies -- which may include running out of gas, getting into an accident, getting lost, or having your car break down. Weis says your kit should include blankets, water, a fully charged cell phone, a reflector, kitty litter or salt for ice, and some food.

Get Your Eyes Checked Annually

Annual eye exams are an important part of driving safety. "Fewer hours of daylight means more hours of difficult driving," Perry Binder, MD, an ophthalmologist from San Diego, tells WebMD.

Binder says there is also less contrast on gray days. He warns of the brightness and glare that can appear when driving in snow. "Snow and ice require slower time to react especially because of skidding," says Binder, who agrees with Weis that slowing down and increasing the distance between you and other vehicles is key.


Clear Ice and Snow From Your Vehicle

If there has been a storm, allow the plows to do their job before you head out, Weis says. Have a brush to clear all of the ice and snow from your vehicle before you start driving.

Don't skip the roof of the car, because snow can fall on rear and front windows while you are driving, blocking your vision unexpectedly. Make sure your lights are visible and not covered with snow and ice as well.

You should also warm up your vehicle before you drive, but according to AAA don't do so in an enclosed space like a garage. Car exhaust is a common source of carbon monoxide, and adequate ventilation is necessary to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Recognize When You Are in No Condition to Drive

The car isn't the only thing that needs to be prepared -- the driver does, too. That's why Weis says you should avoid driving when you don't feel well. If you are tired or have been drinking, steer clear of the wheel.

Share These Tips With Your Teens

Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death among teenagers, according to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health. It's even more important, therefore, that you discuss winter driving safety with your family if you have teenage drivers.

Remember, it's never too late to prepare yourself and your vehicle for the winter months. Gilman says she got lucky. "I drive much slower now during bad weather, and I keep my distance from other vehicles," she says. She learned the hard way. Hopefully you don't have to.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD


Published Jan. 9, 2006

SOURCES: Sara Weis, spokeswoman, AAA, Washington, D.C. Perry Binder, MD, Gordon Weiss Vision Institute, San Diego. Jason Subocz, service manager, Pro Lube Oil Change and Tune Up, Northampton, Mass. Jodi Gilman, Northampton, Mass.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.


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