Driving Safely When the Snow Sticks

By Dan Zak Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, January 20, 2008; N02

I learned to drive in wintry weather by growing up in Buffalo, which is the same thing as saying, "I learned to surf by growing up on the North Shore of Oahu." Freezing rain, fresh powder, whiteouts, downed branches coated with ice -- I've piloted a vehicle through almost every winter climatological situation.

Many Washington residents who are transplants from more temperate regions have not. Most of the area's snow falls during January and February, so get ready by considering the following advice from AAA's mid-Atlantic office and Car Guys in Rockville, which offers a semiannual course on hazardous driving geared toward teenagers ( http://www.decisivedriving.com).

Driving in winter is about physics and finesse, says John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"It's like a ballet," says Townsend, who lives in Prince George's County. "In other words, you almost have to become like an athlete: You don't want to be very tense, and you don't want to be overly confident. But you need to be in a zone. You need to be one with the vehicle. It has to be an extension of your limbs."

So read on. Keep it together. You'll be fine. But first and foremost: If you don't have to drive in wicked weather, stay the heck off the roads.

Before Hitting the Road

Have a snowbrush (with an ice scraper) in your trunk. I mean, obviously, right? But I've seen plenty of people trying to de-ice windshields with credit cards. Not effective.

Check your owner's manual, which may contain tips for driving your vehicle in snow and ice. "You will be surprised at the number of car owners who never look at those pages," Townsend says. "It is the last thing on their minds."

Pack an emergency kit and keep it in your vehicle throughout the winter: blankets, a sleeping bag, gloves, hats, wrapped nonperishable food (such as granola bars), bottled water, any medication you might need, a charged cellphone and the number for your insurance company's towing service or AAA. A sudden snowstorm can strand you, so be prepared for cold, hunger and the need to call for help.

Make certain your tires are properly inflated. Heck, do this regardless of the time of year.

Try to keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid running out of gas if you're snarled in traffic or stranded. (You need gas to keep the heat on, after all.) Also, this helps prevent a frozen gas line.

Practice. When it snows, find a nearby empty parking lot and get a feel for how your vehicle handles. Take note of how the brakes react on ice, how you need to alter or steady your steering on slick turns, and so on. "You have to learn it and feel it," says Aryan Azarsa, owner of Car Guys. "You can't sit behind a laptop and become a great driver. You actually have to do it."

Behind the Wheel

Slow down. Traction control, anti-lock brakes and ot her winter features are great, but they are no substitute for containing your speed. "People think anti-lock brakes are good for as fast as you go, but really it's only good up to 40 miles an hour," Azarsa says. "You may have traction control, but if you add too much speed, it's still rubber against asphalt."

Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas gingerly is the best method for retaining traction and avoiding skids. Don't feel rushed to get going. Giving yourself more room to stop will allow you to brake more gently (and thereby avoid sliding).

Increase the distance between you and the car ahead. It should take at least eight seconds for you to pass the same spot on the road. That means no tailgating.

Use the threshold braking method, whether or not you have anti-lock brakes: Keep your heel on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake.

Don't stop if you can avoid it. If you can slow enough to keep rolling until a stoplight changes, do it. There's a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to accelerate from a full stop and the amount it takes to accelerate while rolling. It could be the difference between spinning your wheels and effortlessly resuming normal speed.

If you skid, always look and steer where you want to go. Don't try to rock the steering wheel or ov ercorrect.

Don't go all Chuck Norris on a hill. You'll spin your wheels if you apply extra gas on snowy roads. Try to get a little momentum before you reach the hill and let it carry you up. As you reach the top, reduce your speed and go down the hill as slowly as possible.

That said, don't be a nervous Nellie on a hill. If you get nervous, just keep moving. Don't brake on a hill unless you come to a stop sign or a light. If you must stop, tread tentatively. "The worst thing to do is step on the gas and break traction," says Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. "You don't want to start by spinning. The best hope for getting going is a very, very slow and gentle beginning." If your wheels keep spinning, sometimes the only option is to reverse (if possible) back downhill, gain traction on level ground, then make another run at the hill. Or simply find another route.

Be doubly cautious in an SUV. Since they can weigh up to two to three times as much as a typical car, SUVs need more time to stop and have a higher center of gravity (meaning they're likelier than a sedan to tip over when negotiating a curve or a lane change on an ice-covered road). If you drive an SUV, brake earlier but gently and avoid jerky steering motions that can send the vehicle sliding.

If you drive a pickup truck or any other rear-wheel-drive car, place 60-pound bags of sand in the truck bed over the rear axles or the spot above the rear wheels to distribute the weight and prevent the back wheels from spinning.