Seven tips for safer winter driving

Snow plow in the BC mountains. Photo credit: Rob Trent on Flickr

Snow plow in the BC mountains. Photo credit: Rob Trent on Flickr

“Do you really need to go?”

That’s the first question to ask ourselves before we drive in harsh winter weather, according to the folks behind the Shift Into Winter campaign.

If you really do need to drive, for work or other reasons, here are seven steps to safety, taken from Prepare Yourself for Winter Driving:

  1. Check the current road conditions and weather forecast. Listen to the radio, TV and visit
  2. Plan your route ahead of time.
  3. Leave lots of time so you’re not rushing to get to where you need to be and try to travel during daylight.
  4. Learn winter road skills.
  5. Keep at least four seconds distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.
  6. Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement while driving.
  7. Have an emergency plan. If you get stuck or stranded, don’t panic. Stay with your vehicle for safety and warmth. If you have a cell phone and it is an emergency, call 911.

Shift Into Winter

Joanna Wyatt, project leader for the Winter Driving Safety Alliance, emailed to suggest I write a blog post about winter driving safety – so here it is. I wrote about this topic last year in my post Help for the snowphobic. I described my personal safety tactic for winter roads – i.e. not driving on them -and this is what I will do again this year. I’ll walk or take transit if I have to go out in the snow.

How do you feel about driving in the snow? Have any tips to share? Seen any stranded drivers lately? Tell us about it in the Comments box.


10 thoughts on “Seven tips for safer winter driving

  1. Beverley

    Not driving in the winter is not an option for many of us who live in rural and isolated areas of the province. I took my driver’s test in a snowstorm, grew up driving winter conditions and have spent days on the road in the middle of winter, driving in the NWT. I was hoping that the seven driving tips would be focused on driving winter conditions in areas that don’t have cell phone service and where driving 4 seconds behind someone is common – as there aren’t that many vechiles on the road. A very important tip is to watch for wildlife especially when there is deep snow or there is lots of crust on top of the snow. Both those conditions makes it difficult for wildlife (deer, moose) to eat in the deep bush, so they tend to come out to the more open areas of the roadside. Moose are extremely difficult to see at twilight or night-time due to their height – their eyes don’t pick up the shine of the headlights and thus, they are “hidden.” Another tip is carry an emergency kit and always top up your gas. Ensure your car is in top running condition. You may end up stranded for hours on some of BC’s highways for various reasons – car accidents, avalanches and such. I always travel with extra clothes, blankets, winter coat and boots. If you are going in isolated areas, add in food such as granola bars, water and a tin that has puncture holes on the side with a candle inside. It will keep you warm. I travel with BCAA membership as it will help you out if you are broke down. Always assume in the winter that there is black ice in corners and shaded areas, even if the rest of the highway is bare and dry – drive accordingly. If you are anxious or scared to drive, pull into the nearest commmunity and find a motel room to stay the night. You are a hazard on the road to the rest of us, who aren’t worried about driving winter conditions and why put yourself through that type of anxiety. Nothing is that urgent, take a break.

  2. raph

    Thanks Beverly, your tips are very useful and specific. I just want to add: 100kms/hour is a summer speed limit on a highway, it’s ok to go slower… In fact, everyone should

  3. alberta defensive driving

    I hate winter though. It gets cold and very dangerous to drive even though, you can be the best driver ever and still get into an accident. Everyone knows that I avoid driving in winter as much as possible when the weather is really nasty and I don’t go anywhere. But I really enjoyed the way you made it and interesting read. keep sharing and thanks for the words.

  4. susan Post author

    Thanks to all for more tips. One reader emailed to ask about a phone number to call when you are out of cel phone range and in need of help. She said there is such a number in the Kootenays, so I’m going to Google this, but in the meantime, does anyone else know about this?

  5. Fred

    1]Keep your gas tank as full as possible. If for any reason you need to wait by the side of the road for an extended period of time, you’ll need sufficient fuel to keep the engine running, to warm the occupants.
    2] Avoid driving at night, if possible.

    1. susan Post author

      Good points to have in mind before this happens! Still another reason to be glad I’m where I am with transit and everything I need in walking distance, working from my home office.

  6. Robert Ballantyne

    I remember my first long road trip in the winter. I was shocked at the destruction of vehicles along the highways of Canada and the Northern US. An intercity trip in poor winter weather is a hazardous adventure, and not for the inexperienced. Preparation and a few skills make a big difference on those roads.

    I grew up in Montreal, where it snows all the time, and lived for over a decade in Manitoba, where the sun shines often but it can be very nippy. I’ve learned that safe winter travel requires a vehicle that is prepared for winter and a driver with the skills and gear to cope with the variety of road conditions and situations. You’d think that most Canadians would know all about this.

    Those road conditions have to do with snow and cold. Driving when the tires don’t have real contact with the pavement requires practice and skill. There are times when the conditions have so deteriorated that experience demands not attempting the trip.

    In Winnipeg we’d often be driving on compact snow. Because it was usually cold, that snow would have pretty good traction, and there were no worries about sliding on hills (no hills). Here in the lower mainland (near Vancouver) we don’t see much snow, and on those few days when we do the temperature is usually just below freezing. At that temperature the road becomes extremely slick. And we have hills everywhere. Although both conditions are described as ‘compact snow,’ the driving around Vancouver can be much more hazardous than in Winnipeg.

    When there is more snow on the road, traction is the issue. Snow tires and chains will solve the problem in some conditions. All of the roads leading up and out of the Lower Mainland have chain-up pullouts. Yet, I know few people who carry chains and even fewer who know how to install and drive with them. Unfortunately, so few people buy chains that the options available in the local stores are seldom the easiest to use that will also provide good traction (and won’t break). If you want chains, you’ll have to do some research. And using them is a messy, time-consuming, business – often done outside in the cold and precip. 4-wheel drive (and all-wheel drive) is much better for traction than 2-wheel drive, front-wheel drive is better than rear-wheel drive, and with rear-wheel drive, a limited-slip differential is better than the standard differential. Chains help all of these. For Canadian winter conditions, I think that 4×4 or AWD should almost be mandatory. These are usually classed at SUVs. Try to find a sub-compact, very inexpensive, bare-bones SUV! What’s available are usually large luxury boats.

    I enjoyed Beverly’s commentary [above] on what to take in the car, and BCAA membership. Cars are mechanical devices that are expected to fail from time to time. What was once a cozy cabin quickly becomes a refrigerator for you and your passengers when the engine refuses to function. If you cannot count on speedy help from passersby, when you venture out into winter Canada, please go prepared. If you might be stranded for a long time, consider learning how to build a snow shelter. It will be much warmer than that metal icebox.

    In Manitoba, I considered preparing the car for winter to be an annual event. It meant having a tuneup, changing the oil for a winter-weight, checking fluid levels and testing the antifreeze, changing the thermostat and, if necessary, installing a block heater. I don’t know anyone in the Lower Mainland who bothers to do this. Consider it if you are going to venture into the real Canadian winter – it can make a big difference. I recall a mid-winter event at my house in Winnipeg where we had some guests one evening, so I parked my car on the street. Only one guest stayed overnight, and he was visiting from the US sunbelt. Next morning it was very cold and sunny. When we climbed into the car, and I turned the ignition, there wasn’t a sound. No cranking, no clicking. Nothing. My friend laughed and said, “This car isn’t going anywhere until spring.” I said that we’d make coffee and leave in about an hour. I used an extension to plug in the block heater, and added an extension lamp under the engine for a bit more heat. Then I put a blanket over the block to keep the wind from blowing away the warmth (there wasn’t much breeze), and went in for my coffee. Later, we went out to start the car. I took off the air filter and poured some alcohol into the carburetor (this was a few years ago), I passed the wooden-handled windshield brush to my friend and pointed to the starter motor and said, “When I tell you, use the wooden handle to hit that hard and often.” My wife was in the driver’s seat with the key in the ignition. I stood by the carburetor with a spray can in my hand. I nodded to my wife and friend. He hit the starter motor, my wife turned the key, and I sprayed a puff of ether into the carburetor. The car sprang into action on the first crank.

    One other anecdote: When I was in my early 20s (in Montreal) a friend said that even though I didn’t have a car, I should get my license. And he’d teach me to drive. That winter he insisted that I learn to drive on snow. We went to a large, empty, parking lot that had been plowed, but was covered with a layer of fresh snow. He showed me how to spin the car. Then he’d require me to spin the car and he would specify the direction I’d have to be driving when I came out of the spin. It was fun, and something that was easy to learn, but can be learned only by practice. I am forever grateful to him for teaching me how to master a spinning, sliding, car.

    More than ever, Canadians are not leaving the warmth of our urban areas to discover the wilder places of our amazing and beautiful country. I think that experiencing this is part of our heritage, and is worth developing the skills to be able to travel and explore safely.

    1. susan Post author

      Thank you so much for sharing these stories. I really admire the folks who manage to get out in all kinds of weather – the people who always seem to get there, so dependable. I’m glad to have good drivers I trust when I want to get out of the city in bad weather. My cousins are always good for that!


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