Every driver should know how to stay safe on icy roads. Even if you live in a warm climate where it rarely snows, you never know when you might have to deal with a patch of road ice on a family vacation, on a work trip, or while bugging out. On the other hand, if you live in a colder region, dealing with icy roads is simply a fact of life each winter. Unfortunately, an average of 559 people die each year in the U.S. as a result of icy road conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Unless you want to risk becoming part of that statistic, you should know the basics of driving safely on an icy road.
First things first: here are some general tips to think about before you even get behind the wheel during the winter.
Have you planned your route and checked the weather conditions? If not, check online weather reports, listen to NOAA weather radio, or dial 511 on your phone for immediate travel information.
Is your vehicle properly maintained and equipped for winter conditions? This includes items like dedicated winter tires, tire chains, and routine maintenance.
Are you prepared to drive carefully and safely? Don't speed, tailgate, or drive impatiently, and don't allow yourself to become distracted or sleepy as you drive.
The next step is to know how to analyze the road conditions around you. By watching carefully, you can be ready for rapidly changing road surfaces. The following video from Below Zero is targeted at drivers in the UK, but its message is relevant to drivers anywhere. Racing instructor Richard Tuthill explains how to deal with mixed road surfaces:
While that video provides some good tips for driving on ice and snow, it doesn't fully cover what to do if you start to lose control. Here are the primary ways vehicles lose control in winter:
Oversteer – when the rear tires lose traction, and the back of the car begins to slide out of control
Understeer – when the front tires lose traction, and the vehicle skids straight ahead, even if the wheels are turned
The video below from automotive journalist Scott Newell shows how to recover from skids on ice or snow.
The cliffs notes version is this:
DO NOT turn the steering wheel sharply or slam on the brakes. This will only make things worse. Gently let off the gas pedal.
If the vehicle oversteers, point the front wheels in the direction you want the car to go. This is sometimes referred to as “turn in to the spin”. In some cases, lightly accelerating can help power out of the slide. Be prepared for the rear end to snap back the other way when it regains traction — don't over-correct.
If the vehicle understeers, straighten the wheels until the car regains traction, then continue safely making the turn.
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