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dangers of winter driving

Fresh white snow, woolen scarves, mittens, Frosty the Snowman, and warm cocoa all make winter wonderful. But wintertime on the roads isn't so nice for drivers.

The 2 main culprits: ice and black ice

Why winter driving can be dangerous

The U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration reports that 23 percent (over 1.3 million) of all car accidents are weather-related. When you factor in snow, sleet, black ice, and frigid temperatures, it's easy to understand why winter is considered the most dangerous season.

In many states, winter weather brings heavy snow, freezing rain, flooding, and bitterly cold temperatures that can all wreak havoc on road conditions.

The 2 main culprits: ice and black ice

Ice forms when the road is wet and its surface temperature drops below freezing. Because the ground warms more slowly than the air, ice may still be on the roads even if it's not freezing cold outside.

This surface ice can stop your tires from getting a good grip, making steering and stopping difficult. And while icy roads are extremely dangerous, black ice is even more so. Black ice is a thin layer of ice that forms on the roadway, but instead of looking icy, the road appears wet. It usually has a matte appearance rather than the glossy one typical of icy roads. Black ice tends to form at night or in the wee hours of the morning, and drivers tend not to notice it until they've lost control.

Winter driving safety tips

Winter driving safety tips

  • Winterize your car. Make sure your car is ready for winter and the weather it brings.
  • Adjust your speed. If the weather's anything but clear and 50 degrees, drive a little slower than normal.
  • Increase stopping distance. When driving on slick roads, you need at least 3 times more distance to stop. Always make sure you have enough space between you and the car in front.
  • Give yourself extra time. Trips can take longer during winter weather than other times of the year, so give yourself some extra time to get to your destination.
  • Watch out for hazardous sections of roadways. Bridges, overpasses, and shaded spots often form ice before other parts of the road.
  • Bring your cell phone with you. Keep your phone nearby in case you get in an accident. (And if you're an Esurance customer, you can use our mobile app to submit a claim on the spot.)
  • Keep your windshield and windows clear. Make sure there's a snow brush or scraper in your car at all times.
  • Don't cruise. Using cruise control when driving on a slippery, snowy surface can make it hard to react in time.
  • Check your tire tread and pressure. Good tire tread and properly inflated tires are essential to staying in control on slippery roads.
  • Fill up on gas. A fuller gas tank prevents your car's gas-line from freezing.
  • Don't slam on your brakes. In winter weather, sudden braking often leads to skids.
  • Check the exhaust pipe. Double-check that your exhaust is clear of snow or debris before getting on the road. A blocked pipe may cause carbon monoxide gas to leak into your car while the engine is running.
  • Drive with your lights on. Keep your lights on low when driving in the snow.
  • Don't pass snowplows. A nice explanation from the Wisconsin DOT: "Snowplows have wing plow blades that can extend anywhere between 2 and 10 feet beyond the width of the truck. This wing plow blade is often not seen because of the snow cloud being kicked up by the snowplow. These wing plows can often weigh as much as a compact car."
  • Don't spin your wheels. If you get stuck in the snow, spinning your tires too fast can overheat them, which can lead to a minor explosion. Gently rock your car back and forth if you find yourself stuck.
  • Watch for salt. At really low temperatures, salt can make pavement freeze over faster.
Winterize your car

Winterize your car

Follow these tips to get your car ready for wintry road conditions:

  • Make sure the brakes, defroster, heater, exhaust system, and lights all work properly.
  • Replace your wiper blades.
  • Inspect your tires. Since fall weather often changes from warm to cold, your tires can expand or contract, which leads to loss in air pressure. Always make sure your tires are properly inflated and have plenty of tread.
  • Carry snow chains or consider snow tires. Snow chains can provide more traction when driving through snow and ice.
  • Get an oil change and make sure the oil can handle cold weather conditions.
  • Test your battery. If your battery is more than 3 years old, it might be time to get a new one.
  • Make sure your antifreeze is a 50:50 mix: half antifreeze, half water. This mixture prevents the liquid from freezing in low temperatures. You can check your mix with an antifreeze tester, which you can find at most auto parts stores.
  • Stock up on emergency supplies and keep them in your car. Good emergency kits include: a flashlight, first-aid kit, flares, window washer fluid, tool kit, blanket or sleeping bag, gloves, paper towels, de-icer, drinking water, extra food, and sand, salt, or kitty litter (and maybe a good book in case you have to wait for help).

Gearing up for the cold

Winter is a season to be reckoned with. By practicing driving precautions in winter weather and making sure your car's winterized, you can reduce your exposure to driving dangers and the risk of a weather-related car accident.

Related links

Fall driving dangers
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Spring driving dangers
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The perfect emergency road kit
When you winterize your car, an emergency road kit should be high on your to-do list. Find out what it should include.