When a deep freeze grips regions in the U.S. and Canada during the winter months, it is a good time to review how to drive safely on icy roads. Freezing roads remind us of how treacherous winter driving can be, whether you are involved in the crash or stuck in traffic behind it, as the hundreds of motorists stuck on I-95 in Virginia overnight earlier this month will attest.  While slick conditions can transform a sales or service route to a white-knuckled drive, this doesn’t have to be the case.


Take it Easy

It’s not uncommon to feel anxious about driving in icy or snowy conditions, and the natural inclination may be to drive more aggressively to get to your destination quickly — don’t.

Instead, the best course of action is to take it easy. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation(PennDOT) offers the following Do’s and Don’ts to drive safely on icy roads:

      Do: When it is cold and wet out, check the weather conditions before getting on the roads.

      Do: Be cautious. Slow down and increase following distance.

      Do: Stay calm and let your vehicle pass over black ice.

      Do: Ease your foot off the accelerator.

      Don’t: Hit the brakes, but do keep your steering wheel steady.

      Don’t: Overcorrect your steering if you feel your car sliding.


Basics for Driving on Icy Roads

Fundamentally, you should slow down and increase following distance another five to six seconds, for a total following distance of between 8 and 10 seconds from the vehicle ahead. Typically, a slow-and-steady driving speed and increased following distance will be enough to keep you safe while driving on icy roads.

Braking in icy conditions can be tricky and cause your vehicle to skid. Keep in mind that braking distance is twice as long in 0-degree conditions than it is at 32 degrees. In addition to increasing your following distance, you should also increase your attention even further ahead—recommends the AAA—at least 20 to 30 seconds. This should give you sufficient time to brake safely.

If you don’t have anti-lock brakes, place the heel of your foot on the door and use your ankle muscles to control your foot’s pressure on the brake pedal, applying steady pressure to the “threshold” of locking, but continue to let the tires spin just enough to avoid fully skidding out. If you have an anti-lock braking system (ABS), do not remove your foot from the brake, and do not pump it— pumping the brake will cause the brakes to not work properly.

In addition, the AAA recommends adopting so-called emergency steering methods when driving in icy conditions. There are two methods that you can employ:

  • The push-pull-slide method of steering involves shuffling your hands so that neither hand crosses over the imaginary line between 12 and 6 o’clock. Since your arms never cross, you can make continuous adjustments in either direction.
  • The fixed-hand steering method allows rapid 180-degree steering in either direction, but, according to the AAA, has one shortcoming. This method is confining in that your arms may get locked together as you attempt to steer past 180 degrees, limiting your ability to make fine adjustments

In the event of a skid — often caused when you apply too much pressure on the brakes or accelerate too quickly — remain calm, keep your eyes on the road, steer in the direction you want to go, and avoid slamming on the brakes.

  • For a rear-wheel skid, oversteer to remain in control and continue to steer to avoid a rear-wheel skid in the opposite direction.
  • For a front-wheel skid, understeer and wait for the front wheels to grip the road. As soon as traction returns, the vehicle will respond to steering, and you can steer gently in the desired direction of travel.

If you are going to be travelling well under the posted speed limit, be sure to turn your hazard lights on.  It is good practice to familarize yourself with where they are located in your vehicle before you begin your drive.

Ultimately, driving in icy conditions requires a combination of remaining calm, cool, and collected to stay safe.

Drive Safely

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