Winter Driving Tips

Winter Driving Tips

Here are some very specific winter driving tips from a former Pasco police officer, Bill Blosser:

Enemies of safe driving that you can control:

1. Speed (Basic Speed Rule / driving too fast for conditions),

2. Kinetic energy (momentum stored in the drive train: motor, transmission and wheels),

3. Condition of your vehicle (brakes, tires, and winter weather assist accessories).

Enemies that you can’t control:

1. Road conditions (ice, snow, water, oil, heavy traffic, etc.) and

2. Other drivers (some have no common sense so you have exercise all of yours – all the time).

I can only address solutions to what you can control. I can also suggest that if the option is available to you that you simply DO NOT DRIVE when road conditions are bad. If you must drive, limit it to what is absolutely necessary and use extreme caution.

1.Speed (Driving too fast for conditions / Basic Speed Rule):SLOW DOWN! Yep, it’s that simple. That traffic sign number indicates the “maximum speed” allowed for the road under “ideal conditions”. This is for average traffic flow, dry roads, no hazards of any kind on the roadway. When roads are slippery from water build up (rain or run off from adjacent property), snow (powder or packed with danger increasing exponentially from one to the other), ice, or when any other hazard exists, you are REQUIRED to reduce your speed to maintain “full control” of the vehicle under the existing conditions. That is somewhat “flexible” when considering driver’s experience, training and equipment on the vehicle. Generally getting the car moving isn’t a major problem, in fact that is often what leads to problems as the operator biomes too confident and fails to remember that turning, slowing and stopping can be huge problems. Physics comes into play. An object in motion tends to want to stay in motion, and when you remove the traction (drag factor) from the roadway the ability of the surface of the road to create resistance to allow stopping a moving object. A dry roadway has a drag factor of around 85 (“perfect” would be 100 and that is not achievable). An “iced” road can have a drag factor as low as 2. Basically it would take more than 40 times the distance to stop at the same speed. Now that’s a thrill ride. Loose snow quickly turns to “packed snow”, or ice if you lock the wheels and begin skidding. It doesn’t take long to have a near zero factor for the stopping ability. I’ve seen times when 10MPH was too fast for a car to stop for a red light…yep they got a ticket, RCW 46.61.400 – Basic Speed Law – Driving too fast for conditions, especially the one that I barely missed on entering the intersection after waiting an additional 6 seconds after my signal had turned green. If 20 is what you feel is safe and you’re in a 50 zone – do 20, or less. BE SAFE.

2.Kinetic energy. Just because you take your foot off the accelerator the drive train doesn’t immediately have no “force” continuing to drive the wheels – it takes times for all the power of your motor to fade away. That power may be enough to prevent your car from coming to a stop, of slowing sufficiently to avoid colliding with a stopped vehicle, or worse an immovable object (wall, tree, center divider, etc.). At least the “stopped” vehicle will give a little – that immovable object isn’t going anywhere leaving all the force from the collision to be absorbed by your car and your body! Cars with “traction control” systems can help reduce stopping distance by about 30% – but it is really designed to work in “panic breaking” where you instinctively push the brake all the way to the floor and hold it there in absolute panic at the prospect of the impending collision. It’s a natural reflex and takes lots of practice to not do this. The worst result of this is that if you don’t avoid the collision you will most likely end up with a broken ankle and possibly have the brake peddle brake off too (new problem – no brakes applied when this happens and your car begins to free roll if not locked in place by parts pressed onto your wheels, or attachment to the other vehicle or immovable object. Got to be a better way … before traction control traffic investigators found that “manual transmission” vehicles seemed to have a lower “per-capita” incident of rear end collisions. Why? When applying the brakes on a manual transmission vehicle you must press the clutch peddle to disengage the transmission so the motor won’t stall when stopping. Benefit – 100% of that kinetic energy which turns into the inertia that want to continue propelling the vehicle forward is “IMMEDIATELY” eliminated. Stopping distance is reduced by 50% (sometimes more) so long as the brakes were not fully locked, stopping the tires from rolling and creating a “skid” condition. Skidding takes longer to stop than a progressively slowing rolling tire. So, on packed snow and ice (or any “slick” and yes even a dry road surface) you can stop in a much shorter distance when you cancel the kinetic energy and you can do that INSTANTLY by shifting into neutral. It’s physics – a set of natural laws that can’t be defeated. Removing “force” increases the ability to change the “state” of an object (standing, moving).


In bad or poor driving conditions maintaining full control of your car includes managing the “stored energy”. To make this work, as you need to begin to slow, come to a stop, or begin a turn on a slick road (especially ice or compacted snow), SHIFT THE TRANSMISSION INTO NEUTRAL then GENTLY apply brake pressure – just enough for what is needed. Once the turn has started, or when you want to begin moving forward again after slowing or stopping, put the transmission back in drive and LIGHTLY apply pressure to the accelerator. Don’t over accelerate, it can cause your wheels to spin, pack the snow and even allow your car to slide to the right or left – gentle, even acceleration will get you moving or help push or pull you round the corner. If you have traction control you’ll know when you are acceleration too hard when you hear, and possibly feel the brake on an individual wheel pulse to keep the tire from spinning (in excess acceleration this will rotate from wheel to wheel as they begin to break and spin). Will sound like serious motor problems – just ease off the accelerator – remember: speed is an enemy, don’t bring it into the equation. Regarding traction control – I currently own two vehicles with computer assisted traction control systems (one rear wheel, the other All/4 Wheel Selectable) and I previously owned a rear wheel drive with computer assisted traction control. I have a number of year experience comparing “shifting into neutral” vs. allowing the computer to manage the traction control and I continued to have better control and stop in much shorter distances by shifting into neutral. The traction control system has no mechanism for eliminating the kinetic energy, it only prevents the wheels from locking up meaning that you still have to stop both the car and all that stored up energy with the brakes capabilities – get rid of the unneeded “force” – shift into neutral. If you are driving at a speed safe for conditions this should become an easily accomplished task after a few days of “making yourself remember”.

Final Suggestions: Pick your lane and stay in it, when driving conditions are poor the less “motion” you create the lower your risk of “hazard”. If the snow is so deep that you can only drive where the snowplow has cleared – that area is the “official travel lane” regardless of roadway markings. Don’t let others pressure you to drive faster – their need for speed is not your concern. Hopefully a police officer will see them tailgating you and take them off the road to get his autograph. Remember, safe following distances may be as much as 10 times more than normal. If there is only one traffic lane … keep your distance from the car in front of you. Don’t judge the safe distance by your ability – set it by what other driver’s will most likely need. Stay back far enough so that you can stop as if you were leaving your car in “drive”. Why? – because the idiot tailgating you probably won’t shift into neutral and you’ll need to roll just fast enough to keep them from rear-ending you! And just because there is a cleared lane doesn’t mean you can’t use the unplowed roadway to avoid other cars and stop safely in an emergency. Better to be pulled out of deep snot that crunch your car or your body. If the snow is melting or shallow enough, you can begin driving on the unplowed portions so long as you aren’t creating a hazard to other vehicles (throwing snow or reducing visibility by a snow cloud). Good news is it is easier to stop on powder than on packed snow or ice – slightly higher traction (drag factor) but still way below that of a dry road. If someone is following too close behind you, consider moving to the right, or left and give them space – you can wave at them up the road a ways as they await a tow to get them out of the ditch or haul their now damaged car off the roadway.

Be Smart: Drive for the conditions. Slow down, manage the “kinetic energy” in your vehicle (shift into neutral – get rid of it). Accelerate gently and slowly, drive at a speed well below normal (50% or more if needed), and always give yourself lots of time – twice what you think you need – to get from point to point. Oh, and if you don’t have to drive – don’t! When the roads are bad you should only be driving on them if you absolutely must (work, emergencies – even routine medical/dental appointment and church attendance can be put off – your safety is more important). Have a safe winter driving season, and happy new year!