Practical Winter Driving Tips

It’s that time of year — almost.

You will likely be reading — and hearing — about how to make the best of it when the flakes begin to fall.

I won’t recycle the boilerplate recommendations about all-wheel-drive (not really that much of an advantage) or suggest you buy a set of snow tires (I’m assuming you’ve thought of that).

I’m figuring you might like some useful tips. Things you may not have read — or heard about — before.

Here goes:

Make sure your AC is in good working order

It might not sound silly — it’s cold outside; why worry about AC? — but it’s not. The air conditioner is an important element of the heater/defroster system because it dehumidifies the interior of your car. Without that vital function, the moisture-heavy winter air will fog up your windshield and leave you guessing where the road is.

Cars without working AC can be as un-fun in winter as they are when it’s 98 degrees outside. And much more dangerous. This is why it’s a good idea to make sure the AC is working in the fall.

Before the bad weather starts rolling in.

Related: Check/change your car’s cabin filter (many late-modern cars have these). Lots of dust in the air in fall … like pollen come spring.

Polish and then wax your windshield

A smooth surface will help dissipate water better and the wax coating will bead water and make it easier to slough off. Your windshield wiper blades will last longer, too.
You’ll want to start with a cleaner/polish (some waxes are “all in one”) which has a light abrasive to gently clean the surface. The wax is the protective coat that will slough off the water.

Do the side/door glass and rear glass, too.

Especially the side and rear glass. Because they haven’t got wipers (usually) to clear them. If you wax them, the airflow over the car should keep them clean — and you’ll be able to see.

There are also products (RainX is one) that are “hydrophobic” — they repel water, forcing it to bead and roll off the surface of the exterior glass. In light rain, you may not even need to use your windshield wipers — or you can use them less. Which ought to make them last longer.

Related: If you haven’t already, change out the windshield washer fluid for a winter formulated fluid. It’s usually orange-colored rather than the usual blue-ish stuff. If your fluid reservoir is still full of the old stuff, you can easily suck it out using a turkey baster or a large medical syringe.

Let some air out of (and then back into) your tires

If you’ve ever driven on sand (at the beach) you’ll already know this trick. Reducing tire pressure by about 10-15 pounds increases grip by increasing the tire’s contact patch. Think about the weight of the car pushing down on the tires; with less air in them, the tread spreads out — and this increases traction on shifty/slippery surfaces like packed snow.

But this trick is for low-speed (25 MPH or less) slogging on packed (compacted) snow only. It’s really important to not drive at high (or even medium) speeds on under-inflated tires. If you do, the car will handle weirdly — possibly, dangerously. Braking performance will also decrease. And the tires will run hotter, which isn’t good for them, which isn’t good for you.

There are also occasions when more rather than less pressure can be helpful, such as fresh (and deep) unplowed snow. Increasing the pressure will make the tire narrower — which helps it bite through the snow to the pavement below. Adding 3-5 pounds of air on really cold days also compensates for the cold — which reduces the air pressure in the tires.

So, again: To increase traction on compacted snow, try lowering pressure by 10-15 pounds. On fresh, unplowed snow (and when the outside air temperature is below freezing) add about 5 pounds.

You don’t need a gas station to do this, either. For about $50 you can buy a portable air compressor that is powered by your car’s cigarette lighter/12V power point. Its smart policy to keep one of these in the trunk at all times — winter or summer. Along with a can of aerosol tire repair/inflator (Fix-a-Flat). The Fix-a-Flat is a fast/easy way to get going without risking changing a tire by the side of a busy road.

Keep the gas tank full

You may have heard this one before. But here’s a new reason you may not have heard before: A full tank will improve traction because of the extra weight over the wheels. In front wheel drive cars especially, this can be very helpful — because they are weight-biased toward the nose, where most of the drivetrain (engine and transaxle assembly) is concentrated. These cars are usually light in the tail. A full tank “trims” out the car — to borrow a term from aviation.

It’s also a big help if the car is rear-drive (especially if it’s a 2WD truck or SUV). You want more weight over the drive wheels, which will improve traction on snow/slick roads.

The other upshot to keeping the tank full is that it will help reduce condensation formation inside the tank resulting from temperature differentials. Water in the tank (and fuel lines) is bad news.

Keep your tank topped-off and that’s less likely to be a problem.

Some other thoughts… about the kind of car that’s best for snow-day driving:

It’s older … and it’s paid for

Driving on ice/snow — and among Clovers who don’t know how to — is less stressful when your car’s paid-for and already less than perfect.

Another dent’s not going to matter.

If you slide off the road and scrape some guardrail in the process your only real worry is how to get it back on the road. So long as it’s still drivable and basically intact, you’re good. But you’re far from good when you slide off the road in a $40,000 car you’re still making payments on.

On top of the pain of that first big dent is the pain of having to deal with the insurance mafia. If you have an old/paid-for car, on the other hand… who cares? Get some come-alongs and pull the fender back out enough so the metal doesn’t scrub the tire. No need to call the cops, much less call the insurance mafia.


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Leave a Comment

2 Responses to “Practical Winter Driving Tips”

  1. snuggles says:

    Do not put Rain X on your windshield if your night vision isn’t what it used to be. It creates a film and a distortion. Instead, use a quality glass cleaner and use it often. Replace wiper blades now, before the snow falls.

  2. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    When snowfall is deep enough to seriously coat the roads, if you assume that every two wheel drive car you see is an idiot who thinks he can drive the speed limit or over under bad conditions, you won’t be wrong often enough to matter. Every time I have to drive somewhere in a serious snowstorm I notice the same thing; all the cars that have skidded off the roads and are stuck are two-wheel drive. Every car I see striving a sensible 10-20 mph under the speed limit (or whatever the actual conditions would dictate) is a four wheel drive SUV.

    Drive defensively. Very few people have gotten into accidents by underestimating the common sense and driving ability of those with whom they share the roads.