Understanding the challenges of and being prepared for winter weather is important when it comes to ensuring both your safety and the safety of others on the road.
By Jill Schultz

Rapidly changing weather and road conditions can pose challenges to even the best drivers during the winter months. Being prepared for what Mother Nature dishes out—extreme cold, bitter winds, snow, and ice—can make a difference when it comes to safe travel.

Seeing and Being Seen
Snow and ice buildup on a vehicle’s windows and mirrors reduce a driver’s visibility in all directions:

  • The vehicle’s windshield wipers and defroster should be used to keep the windshield clean and clear
  • Stop and clear off side windows and mirrors as necessary
  • Never drive if you cannot see in all directions
  • To compensate for limited visibility, vehicle speed should be adjusted. If you are unable to see adequately, do not continue driving. Pull off the road and stop at the nearest safe place until conditions improve.
  • When it comes to being seen by other drivers, the buildup of snow, ice, and dirt on a vehicle’s lights and reflectors can reduce the visibility of the vehicle. Frequently clean all lights and reflectors.

Staying in Control
Maintaining control of a vehicle can be a challenge when operating in adverse weather conditions. Slippery surfaces reduce traction, causing a vehicle’s wheels to spin, resulting in problems in maneuvering.

Traction is needed for accelerating, turning and braking. As vehicle speed increases, the more traction is needed. If traction is poor, reduce vehicle speed accordingly:

  • On a wet surface, vehicle speed should be reduced by about one-fourth
  • On packed snow, vehicle speed should be reduced by about one-half
  • On ice, vehicle speed should be reduced by about two-thirds

Note that these are general guidelines. Only the professional driver can determine a safe rate of speed. In some cases, it may be safer to stop in a safe location until conditions improve.

Driving Tips
Here are a few guidelines to follow when on the road during hazardous winter weather:

  • Check road conditions before beginning the day, and then throughout the day (when it is safe to do so). The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) maintains a database of state Web sites that provide traffic information at www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo.
  • Turn on the vehicle’s low beam headlights to increase visibility.
  • Slow down. Speed limits are based on dry pavement and good weather conditions, not adverse winter weather conditions.
  • Allow for additional following distance. It takes longer to brake safely on a snow and/or ice-covered road.
  • If you believe that it is too dangerous to continue, pull off the road and park (in a safe area) until it is safe to continue.

Watch for Black Ice
Black ice forms when temperatures drop rapidly and hover around the freezing mark. Any moisture on the road freezes into a smooth, nearly invisible, slippery surface. Most drivers are not aware of black ice until it is too late, making it one of the more dangerous road conditions that a driver faces.
On cold days, when the road is wet, extra attention should be paid to the spray thrown from other vehicles. If the spray suddenly stops, black ice may be forming. Bridges, shaded areas, beneath underpasses, the lower side of banked curves and dips in the road are the most common places for black ice to form.

Sharing the Road with Snowplows
Because they remove snow and apply sand, salt or other road treatment, snowplows travel at a slower rate of speed than other vehicles. A safe following distance of at least five to six car lengths behind a snowplow should be maintained. Additionally, never:

  • Drive next to a snowplow. A plow can shift sideways after hitting a snowpack or drift.
  • Drive through white-out conditions caused by swirling snow around a snowplow.
  • Crowd a snowplow. If passing a snowplow is necessary, it should be done in a safe and legal passing area that is clear of snow, ice, and slush. Ensure there is enough clearance to the side, as plows are wider than most vehicles and portions of the plow and blade may not be visible due to blowing snow.

When a snowplow approaches, allow the plow room to operate by slowing down and moving to the right side of the road.

  • Wind Chill and Dressing for the Weather
    Often, during the winter months, the term wind chill index is used in weather forecasts. So, what exactly is a wind chill index? The wind chill index is the temperature the body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold.
    As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from the body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, making dressing for the weather even more important when out in the elements:
  • Wear a hat and scarf or knit mask that covers the face and mouth.
  • Wear gloves. Though mittens are warmer, they are not practical in most cases.
  • When it comes to selecting and wearing a coat, make sure its sleeves are snug at the wrist, it is water-resistant and it is (preferably) wind resistant.
  • Dress in layers. The layers under the coat should hold in body heat. Wool and polypropylene do a better job of holding in heat compared to cotton. Also, dressing in layers allows for the removal of some layers when too warm.

Understanding the challenges of and being prepared for winter weather is important when it comes to ensuring both your safety and the safety of others on the road. Safe driving practices include checking road conditions, slowing down and allowing for extra following distance, and being prepared for changing road conditions, including black ice. Ensuring your safety includes being aware of the weather, dressing appropriately, and not continuing if conditions are too dangerous. Being prepared can make the difference in whether a trip is safely completed or not.

Jill Schultz is an Editor of Transportation Safety for J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. (Neenah, WI). She specializes in interstate and intrastate motor carrier compliance and driver training, and regularly creates content to help carriers keep their drivers safe and their companies in compliance. She can be reached at [email protected].

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