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Be Prepared with Tips for Driving in Cold Weather

December 2, 2015
 / Safety / 


Driving a vehicle remains the single most dangerous activity we do each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Add in the dangers of snow, ice, and other winter problems, and the road can be downright frightening.

Driving in winter conditions means navigating icy or snowy roads, potential visibility hazards, and strong winds. But additional preparations can help make your trip safer. And in the event of an emergency, taking the right precautions can keep motorists safe.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has provided some tips for driving safely in the winter. OSHA stresses the three “Ps” of safe winter driving.

Read OSHA’s winter driving tips here.


Preparing for the trip means ensuring that both you and your car are ready to head down the road. You should always maintain your car’s vital parts by checking your battery for a full charge, ensuring proper and even tire tread, and making sure your windshield wipers work well. You can even install winter wiper blades that will help clear ice, sleet, and snow from your vision.

You should also ensure your vehicle windows work correctly, in case you need to exit quickly and your door is blocked. You should install no-freeze wiper fluid in the washer reservoir and check anti-freeze levels before getting on the road.

As for preparing yourself, it’s always a good idea to have a flashlight and batteries as well as jumper cables on hand in your car for any emergencies, no matter the weather. But an abrasive material like sand or kitty litter is helpful in winter weather to help your tires get traction on slippery roads, and a shovel is good to have on hand for obvious reasons. A snow brush and ice scraper will help you clear your windshield and windows quickly, but items like warning devices, such as flares, and a blanket or two are good to have on hand as well.

For longer trips, include some snacks and water, along with any medications you might need over a 24-hour period. Plan your route ahead of your departure and allow for plenty of travel time. Be familiar with the directions, even printing them out in case your phone or GPS goes dead or fails in an area with no cellular service, and let others know of your route and expected arrival time.

Preparing yourself also means knowing how to drive in poor conditions. You should practice cold-weather driving by rehearsing maneuvers slowly on ice or snow in an empty parking lot, including steering into a skid and braking quickly. Remember that it takes a much longer time to come to a stop on wet or icy roads. Know the type of brakes your vehicle is equipped with and how to operate them in an emergency situation. You should always stomp on antilock breaks to perform a quick stop, but you should pump non-antilock brakes.

Here are some key things to inspect on your car before a long trip:

  • Brakes – should provide even and balanced braking; brake fluid at proper level.
  • Cooling System – proper mixture of 50/50 antifreeze to water at the proper level.
  • Electrical System – battery fully charged with clean connections; alternator belt in good condition with proper tension.
  • Engine – inspect all engine systems.
  • Exhaust System – no leaks; all clamps and hangers are snug.
  • Tires – proper tread depth; no signs of damage or uneven wear; proper inflation.
  • Oil – proper level.
  • Visibility Systems – inspect all exterior lights, defrosters, and wipers; winter wiper blades.

Protect yourself by always using the safety features installed in your vehicle. All drivers and passengers should buckle up at all times, and children should always be in safety seats installed properly in the vehicle.

Remember to never place a rear-facing infant seat in front of an air bag. Children ages 12 and younger are always safer in the back seat of a vehicle whenever possible.

An emergency kit is always a good idea to have on hand in the event that you are stranded on the road. Some good items to have in an emergency kit include a cell phone, ice scraper, snow brush, flashlight and batteries, shovel, tow chain, traction aids (kitty litter, sand), emergency flares, jumper cables, snacks, water, road maps, blankets, and a change of clothes.

If you are ever stopped or stalled on the road in cold weather, stay with your car. Do not go in search of assistance unless help is visible within 100 yards of your vehicle. It is extremely easy to become disoriented and get lost in blowing and drifting snow, and you could lose sight of your vehicle within seconds.

Call for emergency assistance if needed, and notify someone of your situation. Hang a brightly colored cloth on your vehicle’s antenna and raise the hood to signal that you are in trouble and need help. Also keep your dome light on when the car is running to be more visible to passing traffic.

To stay warm, turn your engine on for 10 minutes each hour and run the heater. Make sure that your exhaust pipe stays clear of snow, and open a downwind window slightly for ventilation, make sure you do not idle for long periods of time with the windows up or in confined spaces.

It is also important to watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Perform minor exercises to maintain blood circulation, and clap your hands and move your arms and legs occasionally. It is a good idea not to stay in one position for a long time, and you should try to stay awake to be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems. Blankets, newspapers, maps, and even car mats can be used for added insulation, but be sure to avoid overexertion as cold can increase the strain on your heart. 


To prevent an emergency in the first place, ensure you vehicle is in good working order. Drive more cautiously, including driving slower and increasing the distance between you and the car ahead of you. Keep your eyes open for pedestrians and animals, as it is harder to react to avoid them. And avoid fatigue. On long trips, be sure to get plenty of rest beforehand and stop at least every three hours to stretch your legs and reenergize. Rotate drivers if possible.

And remember to always abstain from drugs and alcohol when you will be getting behind the wheel.

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