Winter driving tips

We had a fairly bad snow storm today that unfortunately started around 9:30. You know what that means, everyones at work while the roads get from bad to worse and the commute home turns into a full contact sport. I grew up at high altitude and love driving in the snow, but here in Santa Fe I only like driving in the snow if the roads turned into a hockey rink overnight. That way government offices and schools are canceled or on a delay and everyone who cant drive in the snow stays home.

Take the Tuesday before last, the roads were about 2 inches of snowpack back ontop of ice yet not a single accident or a single set of tracks off into the ditch. The entire downtown and plaza area felt abandoned, it would have been awesome for pictures. Last Thursday, however, the snow started about 8:30AM and by 9 they were treacherous. There was no delays so everyone was out on the roads, crashes everywhere, and the flatbed dually pickup that passed me going 60 ended up flipping 3 times 15 miles down the road on a curve so slight that its almost not there.

Today marks the third bad storm in three weeks where the day started off perfectly clear and overcast and by 10AM the roads were horrible leaving 1000’s of drivers who otherwise would have stayed home no choice but to brave the conditions to get home. So heres a few winter driving tips for my fellow New Mexicans and flat landers who dont know how to drive in the snow for when they are forced to that I’ve learned over the years.

  • First and most important rule, slow the #$@% down! Seriously, those speed limits that you normally drive 20mph over are posted for dry pavement conditions.
  • Don’t tailgate! It takes longer to stop, you need to double your following distance just in case that person in front of you suddenly does a 360.
  • Both hands on the wheel. If one side of the vehicle encounters some heavy slush or ice the wheel or car can pull in that direction, be ready for it or you’ll be the one pulling a 360.
  • Be alert. You need to be hyper alert for keeping your own car on the road and also keep an eye out for all the idiots out there.
  • Smooth driving. Accelerate and decelerate slower, take corners easily. Any sudden or jerky movement can cause you to loose traction. Way back in Drivers Ed school they’d make us drive around all day in normal traffic with a full glass of water in the cupholder without spilling a drop, thats exactly how you need to drive.
  • Don’t use the cruise control. Your cruise control can apply power to go uphill and such at exactly the wrong moment and cause you to loose traction, plus the slightest tap of the brakes to disable it can do the same.
  • Relax! Dont panic and sit there with tunnel vision and white knuckles all tensed up. Take some deep breaths and relax, smooth driving is safe driving, tense driving is not smooth.
  • Turn or brake not both. Always slow down BEFORE you enter a curve and never touch the brake unless your wheels are pointed straight ahead, a good idea in wet and dry conditions as well especially on a motorcycle.
  • Don’t stop. It takes a lot of force to get 1000’s of pounds moving, a lot less to keep it moving. If you come to a complete stop you may not have the traction to get going again especially on a incline. If coming up to a red light gradually slow down so that it’ll turn green as you creep up to it.
  • Less torque. If you do have to stop, start out easy in second gear to keep from spinning your tires.
  • Accelerate before the hill. See the two above. Keep enough momentum going to carry you through the hill, you wont have enough traction to accelerate up it, you need to slightly coast up it or you’ll loose traction. You can always ease off the gas and slow down, you cant speed up. Dont be that guy (theres always someone) who decides to go 15mph up Opera Hill and cant make it and causes a major traffic jam and gridlock through the entire city even when the rest of the streets are dry.
  • Use the engine. If you’re going down a steep slick incline or need to slow down downshift, the engine will slow you down and maintain traction far better than braking.
  • Avoid using the brakes. See above, any hitting the brakes can cause you to skid, if you do have to stop be sure you are going straight and theres enough room in a straight line ahead of you to top.
  • Even pressure on the brakes. You will have to stop at some point, apply even steady pressure on the brakes. Antilock brakes will take care of the rest for you, if you dont have ABS you’ll need to let off the brakes and reapply pressure as you feel them lock up. A rolling tire with resistance maintains traction and will stop you faster than a locked up skidding one, see using the engine to brake.
  • Don’t get overconfident. Just because you have a ginormous 4WD SUV doesn’t mean you can drive any better in the snow. 4WD may help you get moving, it does not help you stop. A 4WD does not make you invincible and mean you can go faster, in fact most 4WD HI max speeds are just 45-50mph.
  • SUV’s and trucks are heavy. Another reason to not go faster in your big vehicles, the heavier they are the more momentum they have and the longer they take to stop.
  • Look (and turn) where you want to go. Just like on a motorcycle look where you want to go and your body will naturally turn the wheel in the right direction to get there. So if you find yourself going sideways look out the side in the direction you should be going to break out of the skid, then ease the wheel back to avoid from over correcting. If you over correct a bit to far just repeat the process till you are heading straight again.
  • Practice! How are you ever going to learn to drive in the snow if you never do it. Go out to a big parkinglot, do a few slides and learn how to get out of them. Its better to learn at your own time of choosing under conditions you control than in some freak storm nobody expected.
  • And last, allow more time for traveling. Its going to take you longer to get where you are going so leave earlier, this will also help in the slow down department.

Equipment tips

  • Good tires! This is by far the most important requirement. I’ve never owned a 4WD yet I drive through some pretty severe conditions where most of the vehicles on the roads are SUV’s stuck on the shoulders and as long as I had good winter tires on I’ve never had a problem.
  • Tire chains. Even on 4WD vehicles these are a good idea to have with you. Be sure to learn how to put them on in good conditions, you dont want to be trying to figure this out on the side of the road with cold wet freezing fingers. (speaking of which, I need some for my new car so Mom if you’re looking for an Xmas present… our cars are identical so you have the tire size)
  • 2WD pickups: weight in the back makes all the difference. I used to keep some big logs and stumps back there most of the winter, but for that unexpected storm that you get stuck in shovel the whole bed full of snow and throw as many big rocks back there as you can find to get you going again.
  • Cars and low clearance vehicles: knock all the ice and slush off behind the tires. You don’t want that stuff to freeze hard, if you go over a speed bump and land on that hard chunk of ice you can dent your bodywork possibly cracking the paint and start a rust spot, dont ask how I know.
  • Kitty litter. If you find yourself parked on some snow covered black ice, it doesn’t matter how good your tires are or how many of them are powered you wont get moving again unless you get some aggregate under the tires. A handful or two of kitty litter is all it takes to get going again, keep a small bag or can of it in the trunk.
  • Shovel. In my pickup I used to carry a short handle shovel in the bed under the toolbox always, surprisingly in 15ish years nobody stole a shovel out of the bed, they did break the window and steal a 10 year old broken radio but never a perfectly good shovel. In the cars a small military pack shovel will do, yes I have had to use them.
  • Wiper fluid. Do not put water in the wiper fluid reservoir in the winter, it’ll either freeze in the line or crack the plastic container. You’ll need to have this filled ahead of time, or you’ll wind up like me having to pull over and throw snowballs on the windshield when it gets too smeared and grimy to see out of.
  • Ice scraper. You do have one of these dont you? Preferrebly one with a brush on the end. If not theres the easy way to get out of debt, snapping your credit card in half while using it as a scraper.
  • Tow strap or chains. Sometimes good tires, chains and kitty litter just isnt enough and you might need help getting out. In my experience as long as you are prepared you’ll never need it but it is handy to get others unstuck.
  • Jumper Cables. Clickclickclickclick… Yep we’ve all heard it, batteries like to go belly up in the cold. Have some cables for that time you’ll need it and to help your fellow motorists who aren’t as prepared to score some Kharma points.
  • Blankets, and food. Not entirely necessary elsewhere but a good idea for New Mexican drivers. If you’re traveling between Corona and Moriarty and the snow is already 6 inches deep and getting deeper, if you cant make it the whole way you could be out there a very long time before a snow plow or anyone else finds you. Then at least you can keep warm and have 3 year old pork ‘n beans and granola bars to keep from getting hungry. And in the summer months your mexican blankets can double as seat and dash covers.

As I mentioned, I’ve never owned a 4WD or AWD vehicle in all the years I’ve lived in the mountains and I’ve only gotten stuck twice in the snow, both of which were when I had nearly bald tires, and never had an accident. I think knowing that I didnt have that crutch like everyone else on the road made me a better driver and I stand by my view that its the driver not the vehicle which makes the difference, although a standard transmission helps enormously. I cant count the number of times I have passed massive lifted SUV’s and 4WD trucks rolled over or stuck in the ditch in my little econo car or little 2WD truck. Or the dozens of times I’ve been driving down a long secluded road that was closed and barricaded behind me and made it through ok. So Dad who decided a 2WD Jeep pickup was good enough, thanks, although AC still would have been nice.

Driving is the one skill, yes driving is a skill, that everyone thinks they are an expert at. Driving in the snow magnifies and exaggerates bad driving habits. If you learned to drive correctly and in control for clear conditions then adjusting to the snow is very easy once you get the basics down.

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