Southerner driving in snow

Our daughter is in the Air Force. She grew up here in the deep south. She’s home visiting and in a week will be driving to her next station in Colorado Springs - Peterson AFB, where she’s more than likely to encounter snow and icy roads + mountains.

We don’t have a clue how to drive with snow or ice on the roads and need to a crash course in snow tires, road conditions, safety tips and anything else you snowbirds feel she needs to know.

Her car is a 2001 Sentra, auto transmission, regular tires and no snow chains (nor can we buy any around here, and wouldn’t know how to teach her to install them).

Please share your wisdom.

  1. Don’t give your car any momentum that you won’t be able to control in a worse case scenario. I.e., go slow if you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

  2. No sudden anything. Braking, turning, accelerating. Slow and easy. Esp., when you hit an icy spot, don’t hit the brake. (I’ve seen hundreds of seasoned Northerners do this. I have no idea what is going on in their brains.)

  3. When your drive wheels start to slip, take your foot off the gas! Pressing down on the gas pedal only makes things worse.

  4. Tailgating is stupid no matter what. In bad weather it is mega-criminal.

Don’t make any sudden moves. Be alert well in advance of the need in order to make steering or speed changes. Easy to say but hard to do.

Don’t skimp on cleaning the snow off the windshield and side windows. Buy one of those combo scraper/snow brushes. Give yourself extra time to let the windshield defrost before driving.

Ice isn’t always visible. Thats why they call it “black ice”. Bridges freeze before the roads.

Probably a good idea to carry a cell phone, blanket, road flares.

The Sentra is front-wheel drive, I believe, so you should do pretty good with All-Season Radials except in extreme conditions.

On preview some of these points have been made, but what the hey.

Put together an emergency kit. It should include a blanket or two, some candles (a nice fat candle or two can provide a bit of warmth in a pinch), matches to light the candles. Flares are a good idea. A shovel can be handy, though if you’re in a ditch it won’t help. Burlap sacks make decent traction devices (put them down in front of your drive wheels if you’re spinning on ice in the parking lot).

The point about tailgating can’t be overemphasized. On slick roads, everything takes longer - you can’t turn or brake rapidly without losing control. You need to give yourself more time to react, so if conditions are really bad, follow at a 5-10 second gap (or even longer) rather than at 2. Don’t worry if people keep pulling into your lane in front of you, just drop back again. A few extra minutes on the road is no big deal.

I wouldn’t worry about putting on snow tires, unless Colorado folk come in and contradict me on this point. I get by with all season radials just fine.

And finally, if you do end up in a spinout or wildly fishtailing, keep your feet off all pedals, and do your best to keep the front wheels pointed in the direction the car is travelling. Don’t panic. I regret to say that I’ve had my car completely sideways (first one side, then the other, back and forth, for what seemed like several minutes but was probably only 15 seconds), and managed to stay on the road and eventually regain control, though I ended up in the oncoming lane.

Back in Dec 1989, we got about 3" of snow here in Savannah. I was driving a 1974 Beetle. I had to go to work that day and dreaded doing so. The trip was about 5 miles. I never got out of second gear. My top speed was about 20 mph. I was able to stop without sliding. The only mistake I made was turning into the parking lot at work. I turned the wheel too sharply and slid sideways about 10 feet. Otherwise, I took my time and gave anyone else on the road puh-lenty of space. The drive home wen without incident. During both trips, I saw no less than three dozen cars that had driven off the road and into ditches and front yards.

car talk has a comforting page full of advice. For her, and for mom and dad. :slight_smile:

Sooner or later everyone ends up skidding on an unexpected or unavoidable patch of ice. A little practice cutting kitties in an empty and icy parking lot, preferably under the supervision of a seasoned veteran, could be helpful in learning how to control a car under those conditions.

Most of what I have to say has already been adressed, started writing and got called away, but here it ia anywhay.

If (or I should say when) you get stuck do not try to just drive out of it. Reverse direction and go as far as possible, probably only a few inches, then shift and proceed in your initial direction, be that forward or reverse. Each time you do this you will find you go a bit further, we call it rocking.

Cary some sand and a shovel in the trunk, you will need it, an entrenching tool from your local surplus store, or even a cheap copy from Wal-Mart will work. Try to not stop going up a hill, very difficult to get going again.

Clean off your windshield and windows, as well as the rest of the car. I am amazed by how many people will clear only the smallest patch of windshield and then drive off oblivious to all but that which is directly in front, and creating a hazard for others with the snow blowing off their car.

Have a cell phone and an AAA membership. Keep the gas tank full and have a blanket and some snack food in the car. I was once trapped in the car for over 18 hours by what the local weatherman said would be “light snow flurries with little or no accumulation.” That turned out to be 22 inches, winter weather, especially in the mountains is unpredictable.

Most important and hardest of all, be patient. I have been driving thorough ought New England for about 30 years and still have problems from time to time.

Good luck, and be careful.

By the way;
Once she gets there, the Air Force will likely give her so much advice she’ll be sick of hearing it. I was stationed at Great Lakes (USN) for a while in winter, and they like to drove us crazy. Even told us how to freakin’ walk in snow. :stuck_out_tongue:

I agree with what has already been said. I would add a few points.
Smmoth and easy is the way to drive. When on the ragged edge of traction, abrupt inputs can and will cause skids.
If you do lose traction and the car goes sideways, don’t brake, but turn the wheel in the direction you want the front of the car to go. As soon as the nose of the car starts to come around, start easing off so that you don’t get sideways the other way. This can be practiced in a large empty parking lot.
If you car has ABS it will take longer to stop in the snow.

I was born in Georgia, moved to the mountains of Virginia when I was 5. I now live in Northern Virginia. Where I learned to drive, if you lost control, you rolled down the mountain.

I agree with everything said here.

Go in an empty parking lot and do doughnuts to get to know the feeling when you first start to slide. Then practice counter-steering. It’s not as hard as it sounds, you simply steer in the direction you want to go.

In slippery conditions she should expect a little lateral slipping, but the main thing is to keep your cool and to keep going, making SMALL corrections when you start to slide. No sudden accelerations or braking, changing directions gently and only when you have to. If you skid, recover gently WITHOUT HITTING THE BRAKES, if at all possible. Keep a LOT of distance between you and the car in front.

If you have to drive in rolling hills where the road forms a “V”, make sure you have enough speed going down the hill to get up the other side. Again, you need plenty of space between you and the car in front - it would be a pity if you built up a good head of speed and the car in front of you didn’t, and started to slide around. If possible, hang back before making your run, to see how they’re going to fare.

If conditions are icy but there isn’t a snow bank on the side of the road, and you start to slide out going up a hill, you can sometimes get up the hill if you drive with your passenger-side wheels on the grass. Often icy grass will give more traction than icy pavement. But don’t drive with all four wheels on the grass, because the ground may be wet and soft.

Make sure you have at least All-Season tires on the car. In areas with a lot of annual snowfall, you may want to consider snow tires or perhaps even chains (if local ordinance allows). You should never drive chains on pavement, so that’s really only an option if you’re in an area where the snow plows never clear down to pavement.

Know when to give up. Don’t try to drive in snow that’s too deep for your car. In other words, no more than 6-8 inches (depending on your skill) of loose snow for a front wheel drive sedan. 4 wheel drive SUVs and the like obviously do better in the snow.

All said, I actually enjoy driving in snow and ice!

What a wealth of information you’ve all shared - thanks so much! I’ll be printing this thread for her review, and tucking another copy into her glove compartment.

Once again, Straight Dope to the rescue! Ya’ll are awesome.

My first rule is: never be put into a position where you need to brake. This means keep you speed slow and try to anticipate. Most skids occur because people brake their cars and the wheels lock.

Learn how to handle a skid. If she has front wheel drive, it’s easy – if you feel the car skidding, aim the car in the direction you want it to go. Also, see my first rule: avoid the instinct to hit the brake, which often makes things worse.

If it’s rear wheel drive, it’s a bit trickier, since you have to steer “into the skid” – which is very counterintuitive. It means you aim the car in the opposite direction of the skid (in a skid, the rear of the car is moving faster than the front; your goal is to turn the front so that it’s back ahead of the rear wheels).

I have FWD now, and radial tires, which is plenty to keep me from being stuck.

You don’t mention whether or not the car has anti-lock brakes. If it doesn’t, it’s more effective to pump the brake pedal rather than holding it down when you’re trying to stop or slow down on snow or ice.

An important thing to always remember is that in general, in snowy conditions, BRAKES ARE THE ENEMY. If you brake while going uphill odds are you will get stuck. Braking while going downhill can easily result in a skid. Slow the car for downhill driving by downshifting, but do it at the begining of the slope, downshifting halfway down is like braking. Try your best never to come to a complete stop, do this by anticipating what will happen. Creep up on a red light to try to not have to come to a complete standstill.

As far as tires I would put them into several rankings

  1. Crappy radials
  2. all season radials
  3. Mud and snow tires
  4. Snow tires
  5. Studded snow tires.

For a new driver on snow I would say go at least 3. If she is going to be going ot the mountains fairly often I would suggest 4. If she is consistantly going to be driving in the Mountains late at night or be required to drive even if the weather is the worst I would get 5.
Studded snow tires make a huge difference even though they are not that commonly used. They’re legal year round in Co. but most people just have a set of summer tires and a set of winter tires if they need studded. More that anything learn to drive on the bad shit before going near the mountains. It takes very little of a grade to send you sliding down a 3/4 mile ice sheet completely out of control.

Unless you are above 12 feet nobody leaves chains on more than one trip or so, but it’s not a bad idea to have a set of cheapy chains in the trunk. Space blankets(those little mylar sheets) rock. The package is only about the size of a cigarette box, and can keep you from freezing. I keep about a dozen stuck in my trunk just incase.

Have her check with local law enforcement for a winter/defensive driving course. They offer one in my area for about $50 which, while expensive, may be worth it. I took it one year while working at the local city (I got a discount and the boss said that it was a riot) and it was a lot of fun. If you’re serious, I’d strongly recommend checking it out.

A couple of points not covered already:

In really messy conditions, use low gear. That’s what it’s there for. This means even in an automatic. You get additional traction and don’t build up unwanted speed as fast.

If she gets stuck (not in a drift, but in a spot where she cannot get any traction and hence is sitting still), she may be able to get herself out of the spot she’s stuck in by gently revving the car in reverse, then fairly quickly, before it slides back forwards, shifting into low, again revving a little, and repeating the process over and over. She may gain only a few inches or a foot each time, but eventually she will be able to get the car out of the spot she was stuck in. It’s important that the front wheels be exactly straight to do this – you lose significant amounts of traction when they’re turned.

The doughnuts-in-a-parking-lot thing is an excellent idea – we used this when teaching our boys to drive in the winter, and all three became very competent at getting out of skids that way.

Even in the deep south, you must get the occasional freezing rain. Here in North Carolina we get an ice storm every year or two (currently having the second one of this winter). If she’s ever had to drive in that, she has the rudiments of driving on ice and slick roads. Snow is something different, but is normally plowed or compacted by cars ahead of her unless she’s driving on a low-travelled road in an active snowstorm. Snow in many ways resembles sand if you’ve ever driven on a beach, but with the extra added bonus that as you drive on it, you turn it to ice.

W/r/t going up hills, the key point is keeping one’s forward momentum. You can slow wayyyyy down but just keep going. On slick roads, it’s nearly impossible to start uphill from a standing start – but if you’re moving at all, you can nearly always keep the car moving.

Two key points. If she does go into a skid and doesn’t go off the road or have an accident, best thing to do is to sit there, get your cool back, and then go on, more slowly and carefully. And if it starts snowing heavily and she’s not used to it, get off the road. Even seasoned winter drivers in the North will hole up in a diner, check into a motel, or whatever is appropriate to the time and place, if the snowfall is beyond their comfort level.

In addition to the advice already posted, parking lot training is the best. I’ve taught people how to drive ambulances and fire apparatus in nasty weather, and the skid school is the best way to do it. We had much fun in the local high school parking lot during snow storms.

You might want to consider a set of cable chains, sometimes called Z chains. They are relatively easy to install, as opposed to conventional tire chains, and should be available at your local Pep Boys, Auto Zone or Advance Auto Parts.

If you cannot find them locally, email me and I’ll look for a link. Be safe.