The 10 biggest mistakes people make when winter driving

Winter driving

We’re Canadians. We should, in theory, know how to drive in snowy, icy conditions, laughing at the ravages of winter as we cruise comfortably to our destinations with nary a skid or slide.

But as many of us know, that’s not the case. Although Statistics Canada reported an overall year-over-year downward trend in traffic fatalities as of 2012, insurance claims for collisions tend to be highest in the period between December and February. Even scarier: According to a TD Insurance poll, a quarter of Canadians feel anxious or panicked when they drive in winter, with 36 percent of drivers avoiding the roads unless they absolutely have to drive.

Unfortunately, many drivers make winter driving worse than it should be because they make common errors that increase their chances of getting in a crash. Take a look at our list of the worst winter driving mistakes, and see if there’s room for improvement in your driving.

1. You don’t adjust your speed for the weather conditions. Speed limits are set for ideal road conditions—that is, dry asphalt and clear sightlines. The instant you add moisture and limited visibility to your drive, your speed should drop. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly clear road—we’ve all heard stories of drivers hitting patches of invisible black ice and skidding out of control. Slow down.

2. You don’t leave enough space. It takes four to ten times longer to brake in snowy or icy conditions, which means that you need to leave yourself a lot more space to stop and maneuver. Make sure you leave even room for trucks, and never pass them on the right—they take a lot more space to brake, and have a huge blind spot on their right side. Always give trucks a wide berth.

3. You’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t focus on the car right in front of you. Chances are, by the time they react to a problem on the road, it’s too late for you to get out of the way. Always look well ahead, and scan the road periodically to make sure you have an escape route into another lane. If you start to slide, look in the direction you want the car to go, not at what you’re about to crash into.

4. You let your four-wheel drive make you over-confident. It’s true—vehicles with four-wheel drive tend to perform better in icy or snowy conditions, because that extra torque can help you accelerate faster and get out of becoming stuck. However, four-wheel drive isn’t a license to drive quickly, because most of your traction in a skid comes from the interaction between your tires and the road—which has nothing to do with how much torque you’re able to put behind your tires. Better to slow down and, ideally, invest in winter tires.

5. You are too stressed out. Have you got your steering wheel in a death grip? Do you slam on the brakes the instant you start to slide? Do you find yourself over-correcting a skid? Skidding is scary, but panicking makes it much worse. Relax your grip, brake gently, and steadily, steer smoothly as you keep your eyes locked on where you want to go. “Be smooth” isn’t just good advice for dating—it’s perfect for winter driving, too. (Transport Canada has some great diagrams that show you how to get out of different types of skids.)

6. You try and get your car to multi-task. You wouldn’t multi-task behind the wheel, would you? (We hope not.) Don’t ask your car to do more than one thing at a time either. Brake (gently), then steer (smoothly), then accelerate (slowly) when you’re able to. Combining braking with steering is a recipe for sliding.

7. You drive on running lights only (or rely on your car to switch on your headlights). If you don’t have your headlights on, then your tail lights don’t light up, meaning you’re invisible to the people behind you. And automatic headlights are great—except when they don’t come on, which is more frequently than you think, especially in bad weather that happens during daylight hours. Make sure your complete headlight system is on when you’re driving in rough weather (though you should switch to low beams in heavy fog or snow). And if you have to stop suddenly, or visibility gets really bad, throw on your four-way flashers—the people driving behind you will be grateful.

8. You wear big honking boots and a bulky coat. Believe it or not, your car communicates with you—and not just through the “check engine” light. As a driver, you’re accustomed to telling when your car isn’t driving quite right. If you put on a big puffy coat and super-thick winter boots, you’re reducing the sensations you can feel in your steering wheel and through the pedals, which could cause you to over-correct. Invest in some heated seat covers and put your big coat and boots in the back seat—you’ll have a lot more control when you need it.

9. Your car could be mistaken for a snowblower. Aside from really, really irritating the drivers behind you, leaving a pile of snow on your car is a visibility hazard for you, too. Clear off your roof, your bumpers, your hood, and make sure to get snow away from your headlights and tail lights.

10. You aren’t prepared for something to happen. Hopefully you won’t end up in a ditch, but it happens to the best of us, so make sure you’re prepared. If you end up stuck, the safest place to be is in your car. Run the engine for about ten minutes every hour to stay warm (make sure to crack your window a little, or check your tailpipe to make sure it isn’t blocked and sending exhaust into the car). Pack an emergency kit with what you might need: extra warm clothes, a blanket, matches, a safety candle, snacks like energy bars, bottled water, a first aid kit, a collapsible shovel, kitty litter or sand for traction, paper towels, a tow chain, booster cables, and flares. And make sure to charge your phone before you leave.

What’s your best winter driving tip?