Safety Tips for Driving in Cold Weather
During the winter, many people head directly into the blustery conditions, such as Lake Tahoe and other areas of the Sierras, to enjoy the snow. When drivers who are used to conditions such as rain and occasional fog head into these areas of snow and sleet, they often face road conditions that they have never experienced before and endanger themselves and those around them on the roadways.
If you are heading to a place with inclement weather and aren’t sure how to handle road conditions, we have created this guide to help you understand how to best navigate these treacherous conditions.
While most drivers are used to driving in the rain, rain in winter presents a number of challenges that must be considered. Driving in the rain requires slowing down due to the traction of the road changing and the visibility reducing. Additionally, in the winter, rain has a companion that often accompanies it: ice.
As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Institute (NOAA) explains, when the rain ends, or even during the rain, the layer of air near the ground can be colder than the surrounding air, causing the water to supercool and freeze when it contacts the ground. When this condition exists, the main concern for drivers becomes the ice that forms. Freezing rain occurs most frequently on open, exposed, or elevated roads, such as bridges or overpasses.
When driving on ice, the best thing to do is to slow down considerably. This allows you to not only retain a grip on the road, but also to react to any events that may occur around you due to adverse weather conditions. If you have access to a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle, you should use these vehicles with these features engaged. If possible, avoid icy roads all together.
Sleet is the in-between stage of precipitation that occurs when frozen rain freezes before it strikes the ground, but is not cool enough in the upper atmosphere to fall as snow. Sleet functions similarly to rain when it strikes the earth, turning the roadways into slippery, slushy messes.
With slush, the visibility on the windshield can go down immediately and significantly, as this type of precipitation tends to clump up. Sleet forms slush on the ground, which is easier to see than the ice that frozen rain causes, but the advice remains the same: slow down. It is better to get to your destination late rather than not at all.
Fog during the winter can present a silent and dangerous issue. Fog, simply put, is water vapor, which means that during the winter when conditions are right, what appears to be a normal fog bank can be a drifting cloud of ice, with anything it comes into contact with becoming encased in a thin layer of frozen fog. The National Weather Service explains that this can cause black ice to form on stairways, sidewalks, and roadways. Black ice is ice that has less of a reflective sheen to it, making it harder to see.
When in fog, ensure that you leave adequate space between you and the driver in front of you. While there is a temptation to use high beams to cut through the fog, resist this urge. You may be blinding the drivers in front of you and on the other side of the road as both vehicles are in already low visibility conditions, and you could cause an accident. With freezing fog, if you notice that the area around the road, such as trees, barriers, or signs, show signs of icing, slow down and watch the road ahead for glossy patches. These shiny areas will indicate that they are iced over and will need to be either avoided or adjusted for.
Snow presents a challenge for even experienced winter drivers. Snow can cause visibility loss like fog does and presents driving challenges like sleet and rain. When it’s snowing, slow down to a safe speed. Take corners as slowly as possible, and shift into a lower gear such as second. Once again, use four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles with all-weather tires, and abide by all chain restrictions. Remember that the snow will reduce your ability to grip the road and sometimes cause your car to slip, so put your entire focus on the road.