Be Safe, Smart and Prepared On the Road: Winter Driving Tips

Winter Driving

Tip #1: Good driving is your best defense. But there are other ways, too.

About this time every year, I start to wonder if not investing in winter tires was a mistake. When snow is in the forecast, I rush to the grocery store before the storm starts to stock up on essentials. Then I lie awake in the pre-dawn hours waiting for the school cancellation call. I really hope to skip treacherous winter driving on unplowed streets.

It turns out, winter tires are just one component of safe driving on snowy, icy roads, and one that most drivers skip. However, what matters more than anything is the driver.

If you know how to prepare, how to react and what your car’s safety systems can do, driving in the snow can be relatively safe and easy.

Winter Driving Tips

Chevrolet Equinox at Lime Rock Park. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Learning Winter Driving Skills on a Closed Road

I recently had the chance to brush up on winter driving skills with the Chevrolet Equinox, including driving with a professional driver on a closed track. Having a pro in the passenger seat was great, but you can do many of these things on your own in an empty parking lot. Make sure there are no other cars around and that you and your car are prepared for winter. Take an easy pace, so you really get the feel of winter driving before you head out on the road. 

I had the chance to learn new skills and try out the difference between all-wheel drive and front-wheel drive. I got a feel for the role that traction control and stability control play in challenging road conditions. Also, we drove on all-season tires—not winter tires.

We took a Chevy Equinox Diesel to Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park where a snow track was set up—essentially a parking lot covered in snow with cones that outlined the course. The Equinox has optional AWD, so we could turn it off with the push of a button. The idea behind this is that Equinox owners can get better MPG (slightly) when they want, and use AWD when they need it.

You can see our drive and hear professional driver Pat Daley’s tips on our Periscope broadcast.

Winter Driving

Chevy Equinox models lined up for braking demonstrations at Lime Rock Park. Photo: Kenny Rodriguez for Chevrolet

All-Wheel Drive: Winter’s Best Defense?

Sure, we all know that AWD is a great thing to have for winter driving. But do you know why?

Rob Slonaker, professional driver and coach, gave us a rundown. AWD is pretty simple, actually. When it’s on, all four wheels are powered to drive the car. This limits the ability of the wheels to slip and applies traction control (keep reading) and stability control (keep reading) to keep you solidly in control of the car.  

In cars with two-wheel drive, usually front-wheel drive (FWD), only the front wheels are powered; the rear wheels are just along for the ride. This means that if your front wheels are on ice or snow, you have little or no traction.

We tried driving in both AWD and FWD.

For the most part, the Equinox mastered the snowy road in FWD just fine; it cornered and turned with confidence equal to AWD (interesting to note: whether you’re in ADW or FWD, it’s the front wheels that turn and corner, so they are doing the same job, no matter which mode you’re in). The Equinox plowed through the rutted snow and crossed the icy patches with just a little slipping. It was impressive.

But trying to start out on an icy patch, FWD couldn’t do it. Even though I gave the accelerator a good push, the engine revved but nothing happened. I pushed the AWD button and then, magically, the car moved. This is because the car’s power was more evenly distributed, pushing the car out of the snow as well as pulling it.

We drove the Chevy Equinox in the mountains of North Carolina. This is what we thought.

Winter Driving Tips

Notice how much more distance it took the Equinox to stop in the snow? Photo: Scotty Reiss

Traction Control: Keeping You From Spinning Your Wheels

This limits the spinning of wheels, so if one of your wheels is not gripping the road (and therefore spinning), the engine will limit the power to that tire, letting it slow down until it gets traction. This is one of the functions of AWD, though most cars have it even without AWD.

Do you really need winter tires? We tried them out on an ice rink to find out.

Stability Control: Who Knew the Job This Amazing System Does?

This system keeps you from fishtailing or spinning out of control. It monitors your steering, speed and braking, and applies braking to the wheels that are sliding. Or if you overcorrect, it will help straighten the car out.

What it really helps with is what happens next: If you overcorrect, often there is a bounce-back in the other direction. For example, you avoid an object, overcorrect and veer off the other way; stability control corrects this, too.

This would have kept Uma Thurman from her crash in Mexico.

I post this clip to memorialize it’s full exposure in the NYT by Maureen Dowd. The circumstances of this event were negligent to the point of criminality. I do not believe though with malicious intent. Quentin Tarantino was deeply regretful and remains remorseful about this sorry event, and gave me the footage years later so I could expose it and let it see the light of day, regardless of it most likely being an event for which justice will never be possible. he also did so with full knowledge it could cause him personal harm, and i am proud of him for doing the right thing and for his courage. THE COVER UP after the fact is UNFORGIVABLE. for this i hold Lawrence Bender, E. Bennett Walsh, and the notorious Harvey Weinstein solely responsible. they lied, destroyed evidence, and continue to lie about the permanent harm they caused and then chose to suppress. the cover up did have malicious intent, and shame on these three for all eternity. CAA never sent anyone to Mexico. i hope they look after other clients more respectfully if they in fact want to do the job for which they take money with any decency.

A post shared by Uma Thurman (@ithurman) on Feb 5, 2018 at 10:15am PST

You Can Drive, But Can You Brake? Antilock Brakes, or ABS

AWD is great for winter driving, but it won’t help braking on snow. That is the job for antilock braking, or ABS. Before ABS breaking systems were standard, drivers were told to pump the brakes, don’t just jam them on, in an emergency stop. This is because pumping them gives bursts of stopping while allowing the tires to still turn and gain traction. If the tires are locked, they are likely to slide much further than if they are allowed to pulse while braking.

Don’t let winter driving stress you out. Tips for finding a little zen in your drive.

Winter Driving Tips

Be sure you have the necessary emergency gear in your car when bad weather is predicted. The Chevrolet Equinox has plenty of cargo space. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Chevy’s Winter Driving Tips: Prepping Your Car

  • Don’t wear a heavy jacket
  • Lose the large gloves—driving gloves are not just stylish
  • Forgo big boots; big clunky boots might cause you to mistakenly hit the accelerator or the brake without meaning to
  • Don’t keep the car too hot; you don’t want to fall asleep!
  • Don’t drive on empty; slow traffic and challenging roads can drain your tank 
  • Get your car serviced! You don’t want to drive on bald tires or have frayed wiper blades when you need them most
  • Keep an emergency kit in your car
Winter Driving Tips

An outing in the snow, safely of course, is a great excuse to stop at Red Rooster for ice cream! Photo: Scotty Reiss

What to Do On the Road

  • When driving in snow and ice there are a few things you can do to make the journey a bit smoother.
  • Don’t freak out! Breathe, you can do this
  • Maintain your momentum: speed (but not too much) is your friend; slowing down may actually cause you to get stuck
  • Drive on the snow, not on the ice: Hitting those snow-covered patches of pavement can give you more traction
  • Don’t pump the brakes in a skid or hard brake; keep your foot on the brake and let the ABS system do its job
  • Look where you want the car to go; your hands will follow. If you swerve toward the side of the road, look toward your lane and focus on getting back in it.
  • If you get stuck, try gentle bursts of acceleration to rock the car out of the spot. You can also turn the wheels side-to-side to clear the snow. Or, clear the snow away from the tires and put your floor mats under them for traction.

If all else fails and you’re lucky enough to have a GM car, you can call OnStar, and someone will come to your rescue.

Disclosure: I was Chevrolet’s guest for this winter driving lesson. Travel and accommodations were provided but all opinions are my own.

Yes, You Can Drive In The Snow. If You Know How To Prepare, How To React And How To Drive. We Learned And You Can, Too.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss