Safety Matters: Winter Driving—Driving Beyond the Basics

William McCaffrey

William McCaffrey is a Board Certified Safety Professional with over 25 years of construction safety experience. He is Vice President, Environmental Health and Safety for Irex Contracting Group ( and Vice Chair of NIA's Health and Safety Committee. Mr. McCaffrey has worked for general, mechanical, electrical, and specialty contracting firms in the industrial and commercial construction markets. He can be reached at

January 1, 2020

Winter is upon us—and with winter weather comes winter driving. Everybody knows you are supposed to slow down and increase following distance when driving in winter weather. In this month’s Safety Matters, we will tackle some of the less obvious winter driving tips. Do you know how to tell the difference between a wet roadway and black ice? Do you know which way to turn the wheel when your car begins to slide? Do you know if you are supposed to pump your brakes when sliding on ice? Well, read on and you will!

One of the most important winter driving tips is to make sure you can see where you are going. Even when the roads are clear, winter driving can be dangerous due to reduced visibility. Before you drive away, scrape and defrost all your windows and clear any snow—and remember to clear your mirrors. Make sure your headlights and brake lights are clear of ice and grime, too, so others can see you. Do not assume that the defroster will kick in any minute and your windshield will clear up as you drive a short distance down the road. Your windshield-wiper fluid is not the answer either; even winter-formula washer fluid will freeze on a cold windshield as you drive along (the antifreeze evaporates, leaving a frozen film).

Make sure your car can “see” too. Parking sensors and backup cameras can be obstructed by snow, ice, or salt grime just like your windows and side mirrors. Some higher-end features such as lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, and automatic emergency braking also may not work when the sensors are obstructed.

Identifying Hazards

Most people are more cautious when driving on snow-covered roads. Black ice, unfortunately, is not always as apparent as a snow-covered roadway. Black ice is a thin layer of ice that is nearly invisible and extremely slippery. It forms when moisture freezes on the road from precipitation, melting snow, or even condensation. Black ice can form even when air temperatures are above freezing, if the road surface is frozen. Bridges are notorious for black ice; shaded roads and low-lying areas are also dangerous.

What are some warning signs of black ice? The car in front of you sliding straight through an intersection is a dead giveaway. Other, less obvious, signs include a roadway that looks wet, but you do not see or hear any spray coming off vehicles’ tires. Shiny patches on an otherwise dry road are another indication of black ice.

Maintaining Control

So, what do you do when your car starts sliding? The adage “steer into the slide” was rooted in the days when most vehicles were rear-wheel drive, and most sliding was from the rear of the vehicle. Today, most cars are either front-wheel or all-wheel drive, so the rules have changed a little. First, let off the gas; don’t hit the brakes if you don’t have to. Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel and look where you want the car to go. Your brain will subconsciously steer the car in that direction. Gently and smoothly steer the car where you want it to go as you stare down the intended path. If the rear of the car is sliding, then gently steer the wheel in that direction to avoid spinning out. If the front of your car is sliding, steer in the direction you want the car to go. Either way, be careful not to oversteer: When your tires do gain traction, you may overcorrect and lose control.

What if you are trying to stop and you start to slide? The answer depends on several factors. Does the car have an anti-lock braking system (ABS)? Are you sliding on ice or in snow? If you have ABS, has it engaged? In the old days, drivers were taught to pump the brakes. This would give you braking power while allowing you to retain steering control. Newer cars’ ABS will pump the brakes for you much more quickly than you can. If your car has ABS and you begin to slide, mash down the brake pedal and leave it down. You will feel a pulsing sensation on the brake pedal and hear a grinding noise; that is a good thing—it means the ABS is working. Be aware, however, that if you hit a large sheet of ice and hit the brakes, all 4 of your wheels may lock up, and your ABS will not engage because it thinks the car has come to a stop. You will feel no pulsing sensation or hear the grinding noise. If this happens, resort to the old-school method of pumping your brake pedal.

A Few Tips

Another important consideration is that ABS will not necessarily stop your vehicle faster on snow or ice. These systems may, in fact, cause a longer stopping distance. This is another important reason to slow down, increase your following distance, and start braking and other stopping maneuvers long before you ordinarily would in better driving conditions.

Do not use cruise control when driving on snow- or ice-covered roads. If your car begins to slide, the cruise control will try to speed up to maintain speed, causing the tires to spin and further lose control. To turn off the cruise control, you must hit the brake, which will further exacerbate the slide. By keeping your foot on the gas pedal, you will feel the loss of traction sooner, and be able to slow down sooner, by quickly taking your foot off the accelerator.

One final winter driving tip: How will you pull your car out of a snow drift if you get stuck? Assuming a Good Samaritan in a pickup truck stops to help you, where do you hook the tow rope? You would not be the first person to lose a bumper from not knowing where to hook the towing strap. Check your car’s manual to be sure. Many cars have a recovery towing eye bolt, which is usually stowed with the spare tire and jack. On the bumper of your vehicle is a small plastic panel that can be popped out. Inside is a threaded coupling that the towing eye bolt screws into. Hook the towing strap to the eye bolt. It is not really used for towing, though, and not meant to pull vehicles out of a serious jam. In that case, call a tow truck and leave it to the pros.

Beware of what driving experts call “offsetting behavior.” Offsetting behavior happens when the belief that safety systems—such as ABS, all-wheel drive, and traction control—make driving safer on ice and snow and causes drivers to drive too fast, follow too closely, or ignore road conditions. 4-wheel drive and traction control will help you go forward better, but they offer no help getting you stopped; and 4-wheel drive slides just the same as 2-wheel drive. Slow down and be extra careful when driving in winter weather. Or better yet, stay home and wait for the weather to clear. There is a ton of good programming on Netflix to binge.

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