How to navigate the first snowy drive of the season

SUV driving in the winter Photo by Checubus/Shutterstock

Having four seasons is one of the great joys of living in Canada—until it starts to snow, at which point every single driver on the road forgets how to drive. There’s a reason that the most dangerous day to be on the roads is the day after the first snowfall. Winter driving is a skill that we don’t get to practice all year. Use these tips to stay safe while you adjust to the season’s unique driving challenges.

Get snow tires

If you live in an area where it snows (so, most of the country), you’ll do yourself and all the other drivers on the road a favour if you invest in snow tires. Four-wheel drive is great, but in snowy weather, it’s really only helpful for giving you the torque you need to get started, not so much for helping you maintain traction when you’re braking or turning. Snow tires’ softer rubber and deeper treads grip the road better than all-seasons, making them an ideal choice when things start to get slippery. Not convinced? At least make sure your tires have a tread depth of at least 4.8 mm (6/32 of an inch).

Prep your car

Again, in the interests of making your drive as calm as possible, make sure there isn’t anything to stress you out as you drive. That means filling your windshield washer fluid reservoir, filling up with gas, and making sure your (snow!) tires are properly inflated. For extra peace of mind, put together a winter emergency kit that includes a shovel, a blanket, extra boots, kitty litter (for traction), flares, a candle and some high-energy food. (For a complete guide to emergency kits for your car, check out this page from the Government of Canada.)

Slow the heck down

You may have been there: you’re driving along in a light snowfall and it doesn’t seem slippery, so you’re clipping along at your usual pace until you try to stop for that stop sign and your brakes don’t quite cooperate, leaving you sliding through the intersection like a pat of butter in a hot pan. When it starts to snow, slow everything down. That means slow, steady braking, and steering as well as a slower overall pace.

Leave lots of space

Yes, leaving space is always a good idea, but in slippery conditions you need even more. Not only so you don’t hit someone else, but so you give yourself (and your car) time to react to changes in speed or direction. A good rule of thumb? Leave a minimum of six seconds of time between you and the car in front of you. When it’s really icy, bump that up to 10 seconds. And the faster you’re going, the more space you should leave. (Not sure how to calculate your following distance? Note when the car in front of you passes a stationary object, like a parked car. Then, count until you pass the same object.)

Give yourself lots of time to get where you’re going

Everything—loading up stuff, cleaning off the car, getting through traffic—takes longer in the snow. If you’re distracted and stressed because you’re late for something, you’re going to try and drive faster than the conditions allow for and put yourself and other drivers at risk. Do your best to allow yourself more time than you think you need so you can drive as calmly as possible.

Eliminate distractions

Driving in bad weather is stressful, especially when you’re not used to it, and it’s harder to do if your phone is chiming, your passenger is talking and your radio is blaring. Until you get a feel for the conditions, turn down the radio and ask your passenger to give you a little quiet time so you can concentrate. You’ll find that you’re better able to react to the road when things are calm and you’re not singing along to “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (And we shouldn’t even need to tell you that your phone should be tucked safely away where it can’t be a distraction.)

Don’t use cruise control

This is important in all sorts of bad weather: cruise control is a bad idea when it’s slippery, since the point of cruise control isn’t traction, it’s to maintain a constant speed. If your car skids and you’re in cruise control, the wheels will accelerate and spin to try and keep their speed, potentially causing you to lose control. Plus, when the weather’s bad, you need to have your feet ready to react to rapidly changing conditions, which means having them on the pedals, not tucked underneath.

Don’t power up hills

If you try and vroom vroom up hills, your wheels will spin if you hit an icy patch. Instead of motoring through, try and build up some momentum at the bottom, then let inertia carry you over the top. Once you reach the top, decelerate. And this goes without saying, but try not to stop on a hill if you can. (Easier said than done in some cities…)




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