Survive the snow and ice with winter driving tips from an auto expert

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 30, 2012

(BPT) – Winter means updating your outerwear to include mittens and a thermal jacket, but before you hit the road, have you also updated your winter driving skills? When temperatures drop, roads can become more dangerous, meaning you need to change how you drive.

Steve Magnante, SPEED collector car expert and “On-the-Block” reporter, offers some valuable tips for driving smart and staying safe on the unpredictable roads of winter:

1. Top rule of winter driving: slow down

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Winter brings snow, ice and sleet, and these variables change how your vehicle grips and moves on the road. Staying alert and slowing down is the first step of safe winter driving, because you never know the exact road conditions or how your car might react to them.

“You’re used to going 55 or 60 (mph) down a stretch of road and forget that on wet or snowy pavement the coefficient of friction, or the relationship between your tire and the road, is not the same. So, take 20 percent off your speed, of course until you know it’s safe to drive faster,” suggests Magnante.

2. Keep an eye out for the unknown

First, always be aware of other drivers on the road. “Even though you might be a great driver, sometimes there are people around you that didn’t get the message,” says Magnante. “Keep a nice distance between you, and the people around you, particularly if there are people in front of you because if you are following too close and they have to hit the brakes hard, you could be in trouble.”

Second, watch for virtually invisible black ice, which appears as shiny, black or wet tar on the road, and can leave drivers with little-to-no traction when they hit it. “The best thing is for the driver to be proactive, slow down, keep an eye out for black ice and keep cars away from you, as best you can,” Magnante says. “Don’t let people push you into their accident.”

3. Test your winter driving skills

Today’s modern cars come with a plethora of safety features that protect passengers, particularly in tough winter environments, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to adjust how you drive to stay safe. While specialized winter driving courses do exist, they may not be available in some areas. If you can’t take a course, Magnante recommends finding an empty, open space (make sure it’s legal), and seeing how your car behaves on winter driving surfaces.

“If you can drive around on snow in a way that you’re going slowly, but you can cut the wheel hard, brake hard, you can learn some lessons about what it is to be driving on snow in a place where you can’t hurt yourself or your car, like behind a Walmart parking lot,” says Magnante.

4. Navigate ice and snow with caution

If you live in an area that gets a lot of ice or pack snow and it’s allowed, studded snow tires are a worthy investment. “They aren’t something you are going to find on every street corner, but if you have a lot of ice where you live, think about getting them, and put them on all four tires,” Magnante says.

If you only encounter ice periodically during winter, try to drive on the areas of roads that have been treated with sand and salt. If you do slide, he says, “steer into the skid. For example, if the tail of the car is coming out to the right, you want to turn to the right, rather than turn into the left, giving the rear more momentum to swing the car around and spin out.”

5. Use your common sense and be prepared

When it comes to heading out on the road, trust your gut feeling and use your common sense. If the weather conditions are rough and your travels aren’t absolutely necessary, stay home until things improve. If you do drive, pack some emergency supplies such as a blanket, boots, insulated mittens, a small shovel and always have your cell charged and ready. Consider storing an extra jug of windshield antifreeze in the trunk so if you run out, you can refill and keep your windows and vision clear.

Magnante adds, “You may want check your insurance policy and enhance it in areas, especially if your kids are driving the car.”