The first snowstorm of the year has come and gone, but the winter is just getting started.
Driving on wintry roads is one of the most treacherous things motorists can do. More so than any other road conditions, snow and ice make everything we do behind the wheel more dangerous. But there are things drivers can do to stay as safe as possible when snow falls or rain freezes on the roads.
The first thing to remember is that unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t drive. The fewer the cars on the streets, the easier it will be for plows to clear them. And fewer vehicles means fewer potential accidents.
If you know you’re going to do a lot of driving regardless of the weather, have a mechanic go over your car. AAA suggests having him look at the cooling, charging and exhaust systems as well as the battery. When temperatures drop below freezing, a battery can lose as much as 60 percent of its charge.
Before you get on the road in inclement weather, make sure you completely clean off your car, including the hood, roof and trunk. Snow that blows off is a potential hazard: It can temporarily blind drivers behind you, and a large, frozen chunk that comes loose at highway speeds could cause an accident. Cleaning off your vehicle is more than just a courtesy to your fellow drivers.
When you head out in a storm, test the conditions. If there are no other cars around, try braking hard a few times and see if there’s any skidding that increases the time it takes you to stop. Figure out how you need to handle your car before you head into traffic.
Even when you’re comfortable in the conditions, caution must never give way to overconfidence. All-wheel drive may give you great traction and allow you to drive faster in slippery conditions, but on icy roads it can take you up to nine times as long to stop, according to AAA. So make sure you leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you.
If snow is predicted and you decide to stay off the roads, keep your vehicle in the driveway; don’t park it in the street, which will only make it more difficult for plows to do their work. That’s why this bad-neighbor behavior is illegal in some municipalities, subject to ticketing.
When you’re shoveling or blowing snow, don’t heave it into the street. Throwing snow back onto cleared streets just makes things worse for everyone, inevitably including you: When the village plow makes another pass, guess whose driveway the new pile will block?
If you have a catch basin in the street in front of your house, try to remove any snow or ice blocking it so that melting snow and ice can drain effectively. And if you have a fire hydrant on your property, make sure to clear snow from it so it can be found and accessed in an emergency.
Keep a supply of ice melt on hand to clear your driveway and sidewalks, because ice is far more hazardous for vehicles and pedestrians than snow. Salt — sodium chloride — is the old standby, but a product with calcium chloride is more environmentally friendly, because it won’t eat away at pavement or damage your lawn. And don’t spread sand, which can actually make hard ice more slippery.
The bottom line on being safe in the winter is common sense. Behind the wheel, don’t try to do more than your vehicle can handle in inclement conditions. And if you don’t feel safe going out, don’t. Very few things are worth the risk.