Winter Driving 101

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Colfax During the Double Blizzard

Originally uploaded by sogrady.

Given that the double blizzard is upon us, driving in the snow is going to be an unfortunate reality for pretty much everyone in the Denver metro area for the foreseeable future. As a result, I thought I’d share the most important lessons gleaned from my winter driving education in New England, which included three Maine blizzards.

Rear Wheel Drive

If you have rear wheel drive, you may as well stop reading now: you’re screwed. All the advice and fancy traction control systems in the world can’t make up for the basic physics. So stay home. If you absolutely must go out, the best thing you can do is put sandbags or something similarly heavy (plates from your weight set work nicely, in my experience) in your trunk to try and give the drive wheels better traction. But I’d still recommend staying home.

Go Slow

You’d think this goes would be simple common sense, but in every storm there’s some idiot that’s convinced that because his Hummer has four wheel drive he’s above such behavior. That idiot usually ends up in a ditch somewhere, so take it from me: drive slow. If I can manage this – and I once made it from Boston to Maine going no faster than 20 MPH – you can too.

Avoid Your Brakes

Brakes are your enemy when there’s snow on the ground and should be used as a last resort only. Application of the brakes is likely to cost you what little traction you have and may lock your wheels, so using them is almost always a risk. Use the transmission to throttle your speed, even if you’re unlucky enough to have an automatic. One additional note: if you have ABS, do NOT pump your brakes – the system does that for you. I’m surprised at how many people don’t know that.

Don’t Stop

There are dozens of bad things that can happen when you stop – you could skid, you could be hit by someone who can’t stop, you can lose traction and get stuck, and so on – so do it as little as possible.

Watch Other Drivers

Many experienced snow drivers think they’re in good shape because they’ve been through it before. Regrettably, that’s only part of the equation. You need to be just as concerned about the other folks on the road as you are about your own car – particularly when it comes to intersections, exits and other areas where bad things can happen. As n example, it’s often useful to wait a three or four count before proceeding into an intersection during a snowstorm, so as to avoid being hit by the driver who couldn’t stop to make the light and simply barrels through.

What About Ice?

Avoid it. Snow’s not simple to drive in, but is manageable. Ice is an entirely different matter, and unlike snow four wheel drive means virtually nothing on ice. The same rules apply to driving on ice, but even if you follow them you can easily lose contol.


Rock back and forth and see if you can free yourself. Sometimes you can – like when I got stuck in front of the Irish Hound this very evening – and sometimes you can’t, but blindly applying throttle is likely to only dig you in deeper. And could burn out your clutch, if you drive a stick. If you’re at home, see if you turn up sand, salt, kitty litter, or boards – anything that will a.) give you better traction, b.) melt some of the snow you’re stuck in, or c.) both.

High Beams

Depends on conditions, but you’re probably better off not using them. When there’s decent snow coming down, your high beams are likely to reflect off of the blowing snow and blind you rather than give you better visibility. It’s similar, in that respect, to fog.

That’s all I can think of off the top of my head; feel free to share your tips if you’re so inclined. And to everyone in Denver, be safe out there. The roads weren’t good to begin with, and are getting worse by the minute.


  1. I actually prefer rear wheel drive vehicles in the snow (with weight on the drive axle, of course). The benefit here is that you can lose traction without losing steering and vice versa. This does take a little more skill, especially to proceed after a stop.

    You didn’t mention the benefits of standard transmissions. Engine braking in inclement conditions, IMHO, is a lot safer than any other braking methods.

  2. Bah. Rear wheel drive means you can correct a skid — if you skid with front wheel drive you’re screwed. Granted, it’s a skill almost no-one has anymore, but it’s a skill you can learn.

  3. You survived three Maine blizzards without learning about snow tires?

    The only part of the car that is always in contact with the road is the tire. Having good snow tires helps keeps your car on the road, not wrapped around a tree or buried in a ditch.

  4. Ron: really? that’s interesting. i’ve drive three rear wheel drive vehicles rather extensively in snow (73 Mustang, 92 Thunderbird, and a 96 Explorer that lost its 4WD), and they were all horrendous in the snow. not just at stop, which everyone knows with fishtailing and so on, but even at speed.

    as for the standard, i did hint at the advantages in saying “Use the transmission to throttle your speed, even if you’re unlucky enough to have an automatic,” but could have made it clearer. thanks for pointing that out.

    dbt: not sure i agree. it’s not difficult to correct a skid with rear wheel drive, i agree, but i skid far less with front or four wheel drive than i do with rear.

    dave: well, i was trying to focus on the things you can do while actually driving as opposed to preparation and so on, but snow tires are indeed a good thing.

  5. I live in Calgary, Canada, and your #2 (go slow) it’s the main reason for accidents. Funny to say, all ditched cars are usually 4WD SUV’s with winter tires.

  6. Carry properly-sized chains and know how to put them on. Even if you have 4WD, chains make a big difference in poor conditions. I like chains better than snow tires; you just use ’em when you need ’em. Whenever you’re out in snow, space is your friend. Leave plenty of room between your car and those around it.

  7. I agree about chains. I never used them growing up in Colorado, but one is forced to use them here in California (where the snow quantities are much greater and the snow itself is wetter) — chains make a huge difference. I always carry them in my car now, and have donned them in Colorado more than once. (In particular, on an absolutely nasty black-ice ascent of Vail Pass.)

    One thing you forgot to mention: center of gravity. Anyone who bought that SUV because they thought it would be better in snow will one day join those other SUVs in the ditch: the high center of gravity makes them much more difficult to control on ice. I’ve always thought that the optimal vehicle for inclement weather is a Subaru wagon: 4WD, reasonably high clearance, long wheel base, low center of gravity. And indeed, I’ve never seen a Subaru spun out on the median — where I have seen countless SUVs spun out. (And have actually been a passenger in one myself; not so fun…)

  8. I’m with @Ron on the rear-wheel drive and the use of compression braking. (The cars of my teenage skiing years were all rear-wheel drive.) If you’ve got a manual transmission (so that you can use a higher gear for *less* traction), you’re even better off.

    Different kinds of snow (moisture content, etc.) and topography also complicate driving. It was easy enough to get around in Chicago with 4-6 inches on the ground (even before the salt trucks were out), but that much snow in the Northwest makes things impassible.

  9. Jonny: i’m assuming you mean that the cars are going off the road b/c they’re not following rule #2 πŸ˜‰ but yes, have already seen that today with a truck up on a median b/c they couldn’t stop.

    Mike: i really should pick up some chains. particularly given some of the places that i tend to travel to up here, not to mention the inconvenience of snow tires that you mention.

    Bryan: will definitely pick up chains now. as for the center of gravity, couldn’t agree more. i don’t like driving trucks for precisely that reason. the subaru’s are great; i drove one through a snow storm from grand lake to fort collins at one point with no issues whatsoever. good little snow cars, with a bit more clearance than i have.

    Paul: interesting. i can’t imagine trying to drive a rear drive car around anymore after having been on front for so long and now with four, but maybe i’m missing something. when i bought my Volvo last year, one of the first things i did was rule out rear drive cars.

    agreed on the snow, and there’s also the driver component to deal with. from what i’m told, storms that hit the south are worse simply b/c no one’s trained in driving in snow.

  10. I’ve lived in Canada all my life, so I even trying to remember how many blizzards I’ve driven through is pretty much impossible. Dozens at least.

    I *hate* front wheel drive cars in the snow. IMHO, FWD just gives the driver a false sense of security. The illusion of control where none exists. RWD definitely gives you lots of feedback that you’re driving in slippery conditions.

    That said, all three (’88 Chev 2500, ’00 Nissan Xterra, ’02 Volvo XC70) of my vehicles are either 4WD or AWD.

    My personal list of tips for driving in snow are:

    * Get some real snow tires! All season radials are a joke. Especially when it gets cold.
    * 4WD or AWD really do make a huge difference (but you still have to drive slow! 4WD doesn’t help you stop at all.)
    * Manual transmissions are a big help — especially if you don’t have 4WD
    * Make sure you have lots of window washer fluid — you’re going to need it. And if you can, make sure you have winter wiper blades. Being able to see out your windshield is definitely helpful.
    * Did I mention you have to slow down? I mean really slow down?

  11. That wiper fluid tip (which is a good one) reminded me of one thing that has helped me in the past: putting a tremendous amount of dry heat on the windshield by using the front defog and A/C simultaneously. If you can avoid having to use your wipers by having snow essentially evaporate on contact, you will avoid the additional refraction induced by streaking on the windshield. This, coupled with an old Ella Fitzgerald CD, saw me through the four hours it took to drive the 100 miles from Baker, NV to Delta, UT in the middle of a driving blizzard at night on a lonely highway. (And for whatever it’s worth, I don’t recommend this experience to anyone — but if you look at Baker, NV on the map, you’ll see that I didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice…)

  12. 4wd isn’t really designed for snow per-se, there’s a reason it doesn’t make much difference. It’s pretty useless unless you’re driving off-road.

  13. Mike: well, i really seem to be in the minority here, but i’m a confirmed fan of front drive on cars. i had it on the Taurus for winters in MA, NH, and ME and it pulled me through many a bad storm. maybe not dozens of blizzards, but then i’m not Canadian πŸ˜‰

    i never found front offered illusions of control; i’d skid with it, but far less frequently than with rear. maybe it’s just the type of rear drive vehicles i’ve driven – sports cars and a truck.

    great tip re: washer fluid, as well.

    Bryan: not sure i could do this, b/c i can’t stand being in a car that’s too hot. like the idea on concept, though. wipers are not terribly effective, and can burn through your fluid in a remarkably short span of time.

    dbt: respectfully diagree. having driven front, rear and four wheel drive, i find the latter far superior to either of the other drive options. designed for snow or not, it’s effective in it in my experience.

    it’s no panacea – as Mike mentioned, it does nothing for you re: stopping – but it allowed me to get out of a parking space yesterday that i would have been stuck in with front drive.

  14. You should see the rednecks down here in their SUVs and Z71s trying out their “skills” on the rare times when it snows here in Alabama. I always tell people around here, “I can drive in snow, but I sure as hell am not going to do it around here with all these Bubbas.” You can almost hear the calls of “Hey y’all, watch this!” and “Hey, hold my beer!” if you lean out the window.

    [Thankfully, it’s hardly snowed since I moved to the South, and even far less since I moved to hilly North Alabama. I think I’ve only been forced to get out in it one time.]

  15. […] tecosystems / Winter Driving 101 Had to be said. When I’m driving in winter with my Jeep it isn’t the snow or ice I’m afraid of, it’s the other drivers. […]

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