8 ways to avoid a winter pileup

Road & Track

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(Photo: Oregon DOT)

Winter driving can be tricky; the colder it gets, the more likely it is that roads can become slick. Even a road that's been sitting in the sun all day can turn into a hazard if water oozes onto it in the sunlight and then freezes when shadows pass over it.

Just last week, white out conditions on a freeway near Detroit caused a 30-car pileup that killed three and injured 20. People who weren't expecting anything—some of them creeping along at 30 miles per hour—ended up crashing right into the confused jumble of wrecked cars, jackknifed trucks, and spilled chemicals ahead.

The point is, you never know when conditions are going to take a turn for the worse, but if they do, here are a few pointers on how to stay out of trouble. Some of these things can come in handy in the summer, too, but winter throws an extra wrench in the works when temperatures plummet.

Hopefully you'll never have to find out what getting in a snowy (or any) pileup feels like. These simple tips can help.

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1. Slow down

If conditions get wet, cold, and especially if you can't see well, dial back your speed a few notches. You don't want to be surprised by slow or stopped traffic ahead. Look what happened to all of those unfortunate Michiganders on I-75. But watch your six (that's the rear), too. There may be someone behind you whose reticent voice of reason has them truckin' like it's 80 degrees and sunny.

2. Traction is everything

You control your vehicle with steering, braking, and acceleration. When it gets slick, go easy on the accelerator, but also on the steering wheel and brakes. If you jerk the wheel in wet snow, the car will likely continue to go in a straight line even if the tires are turned all the way to one side. It's the most extreme type of understeer you'll ever experience. Braking, obviously, doesn't work well when the tires don't stick to the ground, so you have to start braking much sooner when the road is slick. Basically, observe tip No. 1 and try to plan your maneuvers in advance.

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3. Keep on top of the weather

Most places in the continental U.S. experience cold snaps, at least occasionally, so ice and snow can become a problem faster than you think. Even in Southern California, a sudden onset of heavy rain or fog can cut visibility to nil and surprise motorists who aren't used to driving in bad conditions. It's a good practice to have an idea what the weather is going to be like year round, but it's especially important in winter, when a snow storm can put the kibosh on even a short drive. If you're planning a long trip, check weather reports frequently to make sure your route won't lead you through some impassable tempest.

4. Assume that other drivers are amateurs

This really depends upon where you live, but unless you're in some tiny Minnesota town where you're acquainted with everybody and know who can drive like a Scandinavian ice racer, don't give other drivers the benefit of the doubt. If you see another car coming, give it as much space as possible. When coming up behind another car, maintain plenty of distance between it and yourself. If someone decides to pass you in the dark on an icy blind curve, let 'em have at it. Slow down and move over so that if they do eat it, you don't get taken out, too.


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5. Check your tires

Not everyone needs snow tires, which are soft, have tiny slits (called siping) to aid traction, and wear out quickly on warm, dry pavement. But your tires should be in good shape when winter begins. Keep in mind that half-worn snow tires are as good in winter conditions as a set of brand new all-season radials. Half worn all-season tires are only as good as a set of new summer tires. If you're running a set of worn summer tires, you might as well be riding on drag slicks. They're completely worthless in winter weather.

6. Practice makes perfect

If you live somewhere where it snows a lot—or at all, really—it's not a bad idea to find a vacant parking lot in which to practice driving in the white stuff. Hit the gas, slam on the brakes, jerk the steering wheel. Slide the car and spin it around to see what those things feel like and how best to straighten out. This will help you learn your car's limits. If something goes wrong out on the road and you find yourself losing control of the car, hopefully your practice sessions will help you regain it when it matters. Just look out for curbs and light poles in your practice lot.

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7. 4WD doesn't give you superpowers

On snow-covered mountain roads, it's always amazing to see how many of the vehicles that end up sliding off the road are equipped with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. It gives a driver more control in some situations, but can also breed overconfidence. It doesn't help that many four-wheel-drive vehicles, trucks especially, are taller and more likely to tip if they hit something going sideways.

8. Plan for the worst

This is particularly true if you live in a cold place. If your luck runs out, have a few supplies on hand in case you have to sit around in the car for hours on end waiting for help. These include snacks, water, blankets, winter clothes fit for the outdoors, and a folding shovel, at the very least.
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