Winter Weather Driving Tips

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Snow's a falling...are you ready?

You know that feeling. That feeling when you wake up and look out the window and see the multiple inches of freshly fallen snow. At first it's a feeling of awe at the glistening beauty quickly followed by a feeling of dread as you realize you have to drive in it. Take the kids to school. Make that early doctor's appointment. Go to work. And that's if your vehicle will even start.

In that split second you immediately realize you're probably going to be late because you not only have to dig out your vehicle, but you've got to deal with all of those inexperienced drivers negotiating the wintry and hazardous road conditions with you.

Unless you're a kid. And, if schools are closed, you are cheering for joy, ready to head outside and make the most of the white stuff. But for the rest of us, we have to figure out how to drive in the white stuff and stay safe AND sane.


Winter Driving 101

Here's a tactical list of things you need to know to NOT be that inexperienced driver. It's a good refresher that will help you stay prepared, safe and able to help others as you face wintry road conditions.

  • Prepare your vehicle. Make sure you have a winter emergency kit on board. (Click the image below for a complete list provided by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.) Keep your tank at least half full to prevent gas line freezing and to reduce fuel stops which can add to your time on hazardous roads. Check all fluids, especially antifreeze and windshield washer fluid and wipers. Install winter tires with good tread and proper inflation. Clear your vehicle of snow before heading out including headlights, taillights, roof and hood. Snow from your car can blow onto your windshield and the windshields of other drivers, impacting visibility.
  • Don't drive if you don't have to. If public safety officials are saying to stay off the roads until they are cleared, do so. The faster they are able to plow, salt and clear snow, the faster roads become passable and you can get out. Take public transportation if you can as opposed to driving your own vehicle. Check the MBTA website for rail, bus and ferry operation status, as winter storms can affect schedules and availability of mass transit.
  • Stay informed and connected. Stay abreast of road conditions, warnings and closings from public safety officials. Call 5-1-1 for traffic reports. Let others know your destination, expected travel time if you do venture out, and allow for extra travel time and anticipate delays.
  • Drive smart. If you have to drive in snow or ice conditions, the most important thing is to slow down and leave ample distance between your vehicle and the vehicles in front of you. Use extra caution on overpasses and bridges as they tend to freeze faster than road surfaces, and highway ramps are often the last to be plowed. Drive with your lights on, avoid cruise control, and note that even if you have all-wheel or four-wheel drive, your vehicle still has the same limitations as two-wheel vehicles when it comes to braking and coming to a stop. Remain alert and aware of your surroundings. Children like to play and hide in snow drifts, especially those big piles of plowed snow along the roadways. Yield to snow plows and allow them to safely do their job. Sometimes two, three or even four plow trucks will work adjacent one another to clear multiple lanes on a highway simultaneously, so be aware and cautious of the potential slowdowns as a result of that teamwork. Do NOT pass plows on the right and stay back at least 200 feet.
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What to do if you are stranded

Depending on the type of winter storm, some drivers can become stranded, whether their vehicle stops operating or they are in an accident or slide off the road. In these cases, keep these tips in mind so you know what to do:

  • If possible, pull off the road and turn on your hazard lights. Get as clear as you can of traffic or work crews. Call 9-1-1 for assistance and make your vehicle to rescuers by hanging a brightly colored cloth from your door window, door handle, or an antenna if you have one. If the snow has stopped falling, raise your hood to indicate that you need help and to alert rescuers.
  • Do not abandon your vehicle unless you have close and easy access to shelter. If your vehicle slides onto a pond or has the potential of being submerged, exit your vehicle and go to a safe distance. Turn on the dome light at night so rescuers can find you.
  • Run the engine and heater for 10 minutes each hour to stay warm. Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Don't waste battery life by running the lights or the radio.
  • Use your emergency car kit (link above) to stay hydrated with water and warm with blankets.
  • Stay awake to watch for rescuers. If you are not alone, take turns sleeping with one person watching for rescuers.
winter scene out the car window

Starting your vehicle in freezing temperatures

There's nothing worse than scraping your windshield free of snow and ice, cracking open the door, getting in and trying to start it—and it won't start. Your ride is frozen. Before you kill what battery you have left by repeatedly trying to turn it over, here are a few tips to help you get that vehicle started in frigid temps:

  • Don't drain your battery. Prior to starting the engine, shut the car's doors to keep dome lights off, turn off all accessories such as your heater/blower, radio and lights.
  • Turn the ignition key to start the engine and hold it for up to 10 seconds. If you have an electronic push-button ignition, consult your vehicle's manual as this may not work with push-button ignitions. If there is no sound, motor noise or clicking, you have a dead battery. Get help either from your roadside assistance service or if you have jumper cables and another vehicle, you may be able to jump the battery. Follow your manual for instructions on how to do so safely.
  • If the engine starts with some hesitation, that's okay as it doesn't harm the engine.
  • If there is a clicking sound but the engine doesn't start, there may not be enough battery charge to start the ignition. Stop at this point as the battery is too drained to start the engine properly and follow dead battery procedures.
  • If the engine fails to start, wait a couple of minutes and try again. Sometimes a second or third try will allow residual charge to build in the battery that is enough to turn over the engine. Give your battery time to recover between attempts.

Driving in icy conditions

Any quick YouTube® search and you will see video after video of what happens to drivers on icy roadways. Ice is the worst road hazard—worse than snow—because it can create a total loss of vehicle steering and stopping control. If you can't avoid driving on icy roads, here are a few tips to remember that could save your life:

  • The number one thing to remember when driving on icy roads is to SLOW DOWN.
  • Wear your seat belt, go easy on the brakes because brake use can trigger slides that result in a loss of control of your vehicle.
  • If you are fishtailing or sliding, it's typically because you are going too fast. Reduce your speed to avoid this as high speed slides are nearly impossible to come out of until you run into something or go into a ditch, which is not what you want. However, if you do get caught in a slide, turn in the direction of the slide, regardless of which set of wheels are sliding. For example, if your rear wheels are sliding left, turn the steering wheel left. Don't overturn your steering wheel, which is known as overcorrecting. Remain calm and feel for when your vehicle regains control as you turn the steering wheel little by little into the slide.
  • Be aware that if your car begins to slide you could be the cause of other vehicles sliding or wrecking into you or others as they try to avoid you. Manage the slide as best you can, always wear your seatbelt, and be aware of other vehicles going into slides.
  • Don't stop for accidents or stranded vehicles on an icy road as it can also cause more problems. Call 9-1-1 to report any such incident.
  • Avoid hills, overpasses or bridges as they ice over rapidly during winter storms. When gravity takes over, you better hold on. All the more reason to SLOW DOWN or totally avoid driving on icy roads altogether.

We hope these winter driving tips are helpful to you and those you care about, and know that the Brewster Ambulance Service team takes all precautions when transporting patients and supporting our 9-1-1 rescuers when the weather turns bad. Be safe, be smart, and follow your local public safety official's recommendations.