Safe Winter Driving
Winter is a beautiful time of the year, especially when a fresh layer of new snow covers the landscape. And in Montana we have a lot of winter for a long time.
Snow. Ice. Wind. Challenged visibility. Freezing temperatures. Often all at the same time.
On the roads and highways, those weather factors make winter driving particularly dangerous. If you plan on driving during the winter, it pays to be prepared for the expected – and especially for the unexpected. Getting stranded or crashing your vehicle during a winter storm or freezing temps can be a matter of life and death.
Following a few simple driving habits can help ensure that you make it to your destination safely.
- Keep your vehicle maintenance up to date, and plenty of fuel and winter-appropriate windshield washer fluid in their tanks.
- Clear snow and ice from all windows and lights – even the hood and roof – before driving.
- Know the weather conditions (and forecast) and current road conditions. Call 511 or log onto the Montana Department of Transportation winter road conditions report webpage.
- Pay attention. Don’t try to out-drive the conditions. Remember: all posted speed limits are for dry pavement. What’s safe for current conditions might be considerably slower.
- Leave plenty of room for stopping. Leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle(s) in front of you.
- Leave room for maintenance vehicles and plows. State law requires drivers to slow down or move over when approaching emergency or maintenance vehicles – including snowplows – parked on the side of the road when they have their flashing lights on. If you approach a parked emergency or maintenance vehicle during a winter storm and decide to change lanes, be extra careful. If approaching a snowplow, stay back at least 200 feet (it’s the law!) and don’t pass on the right.
- If / when changing lanes, be extra careful. The passing lane is likely to be in worse shape than the driving lane. There may also be a snow ridge or ice patch between the two lanes. Avoid making an abrupt lane change.
- Use brakes carefully. Brake early. Brake slowly and evenly (jamming on the brake can send the vehicle skidding out of control). Remember that it takes more time and distance to stop in adverse conditions.
- Anticipate slippery bridge decks, even when the rest of the pavement is in good, not-icy condition. Bridge decks ice up sooner than the adjacent pavement because of the cold air beneath them.
- Don’t use cruise control in winter. Even roads that appear clear can have sudden slippery spots, and the short touch of your brakes to deactivate the cruise control feature can cause you to lose control of your vehicle.
- Don’t get overconfident in your 4×4 vehicle. Remember that your four-wheel drive vehicle may help you get going quicker than other vehicles but it won’t help you stop any faster. Many 4×4 vehicles are heavier than passenger vehicles and actually may take longer to stop. Don’t get overconfident in your 4×4 vehicle’s traction. Your 4×4 can lose traction as quickly as a two-wheel-drive vehicle, and your vehicle can still go into a slide on the road. Ice is ice.
- Do not pump anti-lock brakes. Break steadily and smoothly.
- Look farther ahead in traffic than you usually do. Actions by cars and trucks in front of you can alert you quicker to problems and give you a split-second– hopefully enough extra time to react safely.
- Remember that trucks are heavier than cars. Trucks take longer to safely respond and to get to a complete stop, so do not cut closely in front of them.
- Go slow!
- If the weather and/or roads are bad, if at all possible delay (or cancel) the trip.
- Plan your travel, selecting both primary and alternate routes.
- Let someone know your travel routes and itinerary so that if you don’t arrive on time officials will know where to search for you.
- Check the latest weather information on your radio.
- If going any distance, be sure to fuel up (both for general storm driving and because empty / low fuel tanks can freeze up). Put some food, water and extra warm clothing or blankets in the vehicle.
- Try not to travel alone – two or three people are preferable.
- Travel in convoy with another vehicle if possible (remembering to keep safe distance between you).
- Drive carefully and defensively. Watch for ice patches on bridges and overpasses.
- Take note of your odometer and coordinate it with exit numbers, mileposts or crossroads so if you are in a crash or slide off the road you’ll be better able to identify where you are and summon law enforcement officers, rescue workers or tow truck operators more quickly to your location.
- If a storm begins to be too much for you to handle, seek refuge immediately.
- If your vehicle should become disabled, stay with it; so long as the exhaust pipe is clear you can run your engine and heater for short intervals. Be sure to crack open a window in the vehicle to avoid carbon monoxide buildup.
- Call ahead to your destination just as you are leaving.
- Let someone at your destination know the license number of your vehicle, what route you’ll be traveling, and give a realistic estimate of your travel time. If you have a cellphone, be sure they have the phone number.
- If you have friends or family at your place of origin, give them a call when you arrive to let them know you arrived safely.
- If road conditions, tiredness, etc. warrant, delay or postpone the travel. After you are safely off the road and stopped, make a phone call to let people on both ends know of the delay.
- Stay in your vehicle. Walking in a storm can be very dangerous. You can lose your way, wander out of reach, become exhausted, collapse and risk your life. And other moving vehicles may not be able to see you, so you could be hit. Your vehicle itself is a good shelter.
- Avoid overexertion. Attempting to push your car, trying to jack it into a new position or shoveling snow takes great effort in storm conditions. You could risk a heart attack or other injury.
- Calm down and think. The storm will end, and you will be found. Don’t work enough to get hot and sweaty. Wet clothing loses insulation quality – making you more susceptible to the effects of hypothermia.
- Keep fresh air in your vehicle. It is much better to be chilly or cold and awake than to become comfortably warm and slip into unconsciousness. Freezing-wet and/or wind-driven snow can plug your vehicle’s exhaust system causing deadly carbon monoxide gas to enter your vehicle.
- Don’t run the engine – unless you are certain the exhaust pipe is free of snow, ice or other objects. Keep the radiator free from snow to prevent the engine from overheating. Watch your fuel and battery levels.
- Keep your blood circulating freely by loosening tight clothing, changing positions frequently, and moving your arms and legs. Huddle close to one another. Rub your hands together or put them under your armpits or between your legs. Remove your shoes occasionally and rub your feet.
- Don’t expect to be comfortable. The challenge is to survive until you’re found.
- If you have access to a telephone, dial 911 to summon help. When you talk with authorities, be prepared to:
- Describe your location, condition of your companions and the trouble you are experiencing.
- Listen for questions.
- Follow any instructions. You may be told you should stay where you are to guide rescuers or to return to the scene.
- Do not hang up until you know who you have spoken with and what will happen next.