Driving in winter weather can be harrowing, especially in snowstorms and icy conditions. By getting your car ready for winter and using some simple tips to drive safely, you can face almost any weather Mother Nature decides to send your way.
Maintain your Vehicle
- Before heading out in wet weather, check your wipers for signs of damage. Replace wiper blades regularly.
- Make sure your defroster is functioning properly, especially if you haven’t used it in a while.
- Check your brakes. After driving through a puddle, check that brakes are working properly by tapping them gently a few times.
- Make sure tires are in good condition and are at the recommended inflation level. Tires should have a recommended 2/32 of an inch tread depth at any two adjacent grooves. Driving on over-inflated or under-inflated tires reduces traction and control on wet pavement.
Driving in the snow requires a certain set of driving skills that some Oregon residents rarely get to use. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Check road conditions on your route before you go at TripCheck or by dialing 511. Plan your trip accordingly.
- Allow extra time to get where you’re going. Travel is going to be slow.
- Allow extra stopping distance. There is less traction on slick, snowy roads.
- Brake gently to avoid skidding or sliding. If the wheels lock up, ease off the brakes.
- Carry chains and know how to use them.
- Make sure your vehicle is in top operating conditions, with clean headlights, good brakes, working windshield wipers and good tires.
- Slow down when approaching off-ramps, bridges and shady spots where the snow often lingers longer.
- Turn on your headlights to increase your visibility.
- Be prepared for delays. Make sure you have water, blankets, a full tank of gas…and plenty of patience!
- If you feel tired or if road conditions get rough, don’t be afraid to stop for the night.
Bridges and overpasses are the most dangerous parts of the road in the winter. They are the first to freeze and the last to thaw because they’re built of concrete, which doesn’t retain as much heat as other materials. Be safe while driving on icy roads by remembering the following:
- Turn off your cruise control, be alert and drive cautiously.
- Roads that are wet or have fresh snow, packed snow, or ice have varying degrees of traction. Adjust your speed to match road conditions accordingly.
- Increase your distance from vehicles in front of you. Allow about three times as much space as usual.
- If your vehicle suddenly feels like it’s floating, gradually slow down. Tap on your brakes gently; don’t slam on them.
- Changes in elevation can drastically affect road and weather conditions. Watch for icy spots, especially in shaded corners.
- Avoid driving through snowdrifts — they may cause your vehicle to spin out of control.
- Blowing powder or dry snow can limit your visibility, especially when approaching or following trucks or snowplows. Keep your distance to avoid being blinded by blowing snow.
- Look for signs of ice on windshield wipers, side view mirrors, road signs, trees or fences. If ice has formed on any of these things, it may be on the road as well.
Invisible Danger: Black Ice
Black ice, also called glare ice or clear ice, is a thin layer of ice on the roadway. Any ice is dangerous to drive on, but black ice is particularly hazardous because the road looks wet, not icy. Black ice isn’t really black; it’s so thin and transparent that the darker pavement shows through. It often has a matte appearance rather than the expected gloss.
Ordinary snow tires are designed for snow, not ice. The most helpful device for gaining traction on ice is tire chains. But even with chains, stopping distance is still several times greater than on dry pavement with ordinary tires.
Black ice is most common at night and very early in the morning, when temperatures are typically their lowest. It is usually thin enough that it melts soon after sunlight hits it, but it can last much longer on shaded areas of roadways. The ground cools more slowly than the air and warms back more slowly as well, so even if the air temperature is above freezing, the roadway may still be frozen. This discrepancy between temperatures can lull drivers into a false sense of security.
Rain can create dangerous driving conditions including reduced visibility, reduced traction between tires and the road, and less predictable car handling. When it’s raining, be cautious and give yourself more time to get where you are going. Also remember to:
- Slow down, especially through high water. Driving through several inches of water at high speed can cause you to lose control of the car.
- Watch for hydroplaning conditions. If you hydroplane, ease off the gas, gently apply the brakes and steer straight ahead.
- Keep your distance. If it hasn’t rained in a while, road surfaces will be slick.
- Turn on your headlights to improve visibility.
- Disengage your cruise control.
Driving at night is more difficult because visibility is reduced. However, low visibility conditions often occur during the day, caused by heavy snowfall, downpours, thick fog and blowing dust or smoke.
Tips for driving in low visibility:
- Slow down. Every year, “driving too fast for conditions” shows up in the top five most common reasons for crashes.
- Use your low beams. High beams will disperse in thick fog or snow, making visibility worse for you and other drivers.
- Turn on your rear fog lamps, if your vehicle is equipped. They greatly aid visibility for drivers approaching from the rear.
- If you suddenly encounter a severe loss of visibility, pull off the pavement as far as possible. Stop, turn off your lights, set the emergency brake and take your foot off the brake to be sure the taillights are not illuminated. Turn on your emergency flashers.
- If you can’t pull off the roadway, slow down, turn on your low beam headlights and sound the horn occasionally. Use the white fog line or roadside reflectors if necessary to help guide you.
- Never stop in the travel lanes.
Use Headlights in Winter
Turn on your low-beam headlights during the daytime in the winter months to make your vehicle more visible to other drivers, people on bikes and pedestrians. When natural light is low — at dawn or dusk or when it’s raining, cloudy or snowing — you can improve your vehicle’s visibility significantly. Remember to keep your car headlights clean. Get in the habit of wiping off your lights at the gas station. That way you’re ready for low-visibility conditions.
Tests conducted by the Society of Automotive Engineers determined that with headlights off, drivers can see oncoming cars when they are an average of 2,074 feet away. With headlights on, that distance more than doubles to an average of 4,720 feet.
Tips for Driving in Pacific Northwest Fog
When you are driving in fog, slow down to adjust to the reduced visibility. In the most severe situations, a Dense Fog Advisory will be issued if visibility is reduced to less than one-quarter mile. Follow these safety tips when driving in Fog:
- Slow down and disengage your cruise control.
- Use your low beams; high beams will reflect back thick fog, making visibility worse for you and other drivers.
- Keep the view clear. Avoid fogged windows by regularly using the defroster and windshield wipers. The air conditioning setting will help keep moisture from building up inside.
- Increase following distance to ensure enough time to stop safely.
- Use the right edge of the road, white fog line or roadside reflectors as a guide. Do not change lanes or pass other vehicles unless necessary.
- If you pull off the road, pull over as far as possible, turn off your headlights and turn on your hazard lights.
ODOT Winter Driving Guide: https://www.oregon.gov/odot/Documents/winter-driving-guide.pdf