Stay safe with these winter defensive driving tips

6 Main things to keep in mind before heading out on the roads this winter.

By Matthew Guy Wheels.ca

Nov 4, 2016 6 min. read

Article was updated 7 years ago

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Canadians are a hardy bunch; we’ll barbecue in a snowstorm and shovel a drift-filled driveway without (much) complaint. Snow is a natural byproduct of living in Canada during the winter months. Thing is, we need to pilot our vehicles in the white stuff too. Driving in snow, ice, and slippery surfaces often creates a challenge for vehicles and their drivers.

It helps, of course—to keep one’s vehicle in top mechanical repair—reducing the overall chance of vehicular mayhem and calamity. However, even the best vehicle in the world can still crash if an unprepared or inattentive driver is behind the wheel. A good driver reacts to road situations and tries to deal with them as they happen. A great driver knows how to anticipate problems, avoiding them altogether with planning and defensive driving. 

Make Sure You Can See

If you can't remember the last time you replaced your windshield wipers, then it is definitely time for new ones. Drivers who expect to meet serious winter conditions should try wiper blades designed specifically for winter driving. Sheathed in a jacket of thick rubber, the structure of winter wipers won’t get clogged with snow and ice, allowing them to remain flexible and in contact with the windshield, ensuring a full wipe for a clean view ahead.

Make sure your windshield washer system works and is full of fluid that is rated for winter use. Generally, the “pink stuff” freezes at sub-zero temperatures—gumming up the whole washer system and leaving drivers with a fistful of no-go. Winter-rated fluid is marked as such and is generally blue or green in colour. Occasionally take a few minutes and clean the inside of your windshield with proper window cleaner (hastily using the sleeve of your jacket doesn’t count).

snow brush


Make Sure You Can Be Seen

Everyone has seen them on the road: cars laden by snow and ice with scarcely a porthole cleared on the windshield for forward visibility. Don’t be that person. Budget a few extra minutes before heading out on your journey to properly clear the accumulated snow and ice off your vehicle. Invest in a good quality snow brush and scraper. Keep them handy in the trunk of your car and not underneath your spare tire and all the other random detritus, which inhabits most trunks. Drivers who own a tall vehicle like a SUV or pickup may want to buy a telescopic snow brush to clear the snow and ice off hard-to-reach windows.

Give your exterior illumination a quick check while clearing off the windows. They should be free of obstruction and in good working order. Snow is not transparent, so taillights covered with the fluffy white stuff will not be visible to drivers on your six. Up front, halogen headlights throw off a lot of heat—often melting the stray bits of snow and ice that drivers failed to clear away. Many models now incorporate LED or HID lamps, which emit far less heat, making a good brushing of a vehicle’s headlamps all the more important before heading out on the road.
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AWD Doesn’t Absolve All Sins

The primary role of four-wheel or all-wheel drive is to provide forward traction and, at the risk of being overly dramatic—simply gets drivers up to crashing speed more quickly. Sending power to all four wheels will get you moving and keep you moving in deep snow. It will also help prevent fishtailing under acceleration, an action—which causes the loss of control in many rear-wheel drive vehicles. All-wheel traction rarely increases cornering power, nor does it help a vehicle decelerate from felonious velocities. Driving too fast, braking too late, making abrupt lane changes … all-wheel drive won’t help you much during these ham-fisted maneuvers. Also, it goes without saying: make sure you have good winter tires fitted on all four corners of your vehicle.

[caption id="attachment_99358" align="alignleft" width="1000"]awd mercedes Yauhen_D / Shutterstock.com[/caption]


Posted speed limits are set with ideal driving conditions in mind. In the majority of our great country, for most of the winter, drivers will encounter road conditions that are far from ideal. Driving at an appropriate speed when conditions are unfavourable is likely the best defensive measure against a crash on slippery roads.

Once You’re Out There

Avoid using cruise control if conditions are snowy, icy, or wet. These types of conditions are ripe for hydroplaning, a condition which occurs when liquid (snow, ice, or water) wholly gets between the rubber of your tires and the asphalt on the road. At that point, the vehicle has completely lost contact with the road surface. If cruise control is engaged, the vehicle will often try to accelerate, creating a tricky situation and potentially leading to a loss of control.
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Watch out for snowplows and other equipment, making sure to be patient and give them the room they need to work. Focus on your driving and put away cell phones and other distractions. Look for reflections on the road because what looks like water may actually be extremely slippery ice. Tailgating is a poor idea at the best of times, compounded in the winter by slick road surfaces, which make it difficult to stop quickly. Hard braking, quick acceleration, and abrupt gear changes can all send your vehicle for a wild ride.

winter driving


Catch that Slide

If you do lose traction, drivers need to know how to straighten out their vehicle should they find themselves in a skid. Many vehicles on the road are front-wheel drive or have a front-drive bias, meaning that most folks will find themselves in a situation where the front tires of their vehicle have lost traction. If this happens, smoothly release the accelerator and allow the vehicle to slow down. Don’t look at the ditch or that big tree; look where you want to go while gently guiding the steering wheel towards your intended path. Aggressively sawing at the wheel or stabbing at the brakes will only serve to upset the balance of the car and further complicate matters.

[caption id="attachment_99361" align="alignleft" width="1000"]porsche drifting Roberto Cerruti / Shutterstock.com[/caption]



Catching a slide when the rear tires have lost traction can be a tougher task, especially since most drivers will find the movements to be more pronounced. The key is, once again—to look down the road and only use enough corrective steering to point the front tires where you want to go. As the vehicle ceases skidding, straighten the wheel so that the tires are always pointed towards your intended path. The opportunity for an off-road sojourn is greater with a rear-wheel skid because the vehicle builds momentum as it swings back and forth like a pendulum and most drivers feel a front-wheel slide is easier to correct than a rear-wheel slide. In either event, calm and measured responses will go a long way to keeping your vehicle out of the snowbank.
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