How to drive on Snow and Ice

Ah, the winter storms are upon us once again.  And once again, a disproportionate number of my extended neighbors are demonstrating their incompetence behind the wheel.  It seems that no matter how many times the Puget Sound region gets snowed upon, people never learn how to drive in it.  To that end, I've put together a set of helpful guidelines to help people understand how to drive on snow and ice.

    1. Don't.

If you don't absolutely, positively HAVE to be on the road in these conditions, then stay inside next to a nice warm fire with your car safely parked.  I'm sure you can come up with any number of reasons why you think you have to drive in this crap, but remember that nearly all of the problems that you can have driving on snow and ice (accidents, getting stuck, freezing to death, etc) are a direct result of breaking rule 1.

    1. You can change direction, or you can change speed, but you can't change them both at the same time.

You only get so much friction with which to control your vehicle.  You can use it to speed up, to slow down, or to turn.  You don't have enough friction to do more than one of these things at a time.  Remember, the fastest way to spin out is to turn the wheel and apply the brake at the same time.  Maybe that's what you wanted to do, but unless you're 16 and in your dad's car in a deserted parking lot, I doubt it.

    1. Slow Down.

In a low-friction environment, inertia is king.  For the next few moments, you will continue to go the same speed and direction that you're going now, whether you want to or not.   The faster you're going when you decide that you don't want to go that direction anymore (such as, say, an object at rest in that direction), the less fun you'll have in the next few moments.  Note there is one exception to the inertia rule, and that is that an object in motion will stop anyway if it encounters a larger object at rest.  At this point, you do not want to be the erstwhile object in motion.

    1. Get off my bumper, you tailgating imbecile.

See discussion above.

    1. Don't you wish you lived somewhere warmer?

Did you know that there's a whole hemisphere of the Earth which is in summer right now?  I bet it's not icy there.

    1. Just stay home.

The observant reader will realize that this is really just a restatement of rule 1, but it really is important enough to repeat.  Stay safe, stay warm, and we'll all make it through to springtime.  I'll race you there.

Comments (15)
  1. Mike Dunn says:

    If you need a visual aid for why you should obey these rules, see:  (link to streaming WMV)

  2. Dean Harding says:

    Did you know that there’s a whole hemisphere of the Earth which is in summer right now?

    Nope. In fact, even in winter, there aren’t many places down here that EVER get icy, especially in coastal regions.

    Of course, that means that if any of us ever visit your half of the world, the chances of us knowing how to drive in snow/ice is slim to none!

  3. Today is one of the first significantly cold days this winter here in the Boston area – whilst…

  4. Ryan Bemrose says:

    Mike – That video sure has been making the rounds.  Watching these bumper cars in action is one of the reasons I decided people needed this guide.  🙂

  5. Quentin says:

    I’d like to add:

    1. Always wait at the bottom of a hill until it is clear.  If someone gets stuck on the hill and you’re right behind them, then you’re probably going to get stuck as well.  

    2. When going up a hill, make sure you have enough speed to carry you over it.  

    3. Do not stop on a hill when you do not have to.

    4. Replace your bald tires before winter comes.

  6. Dave Brady says:

    Here in Utah, we get the same thing with the first snow of the winter. I’d like to add a special addendum to your list:

    There is no such thing as "Special Four Wheel Drive Brakes".

    Your SUV has more mass than a car, it’s harder to stop. It has a higher center of gravity, it’s harder to keep it rubber-side down. And the 4WD will make you feel like you can safely drive even faster than you would in a safer vehicle.

    Slow down, then slow down some more, or you’ll end up in the median upside down.

  7. Candy says:

    If you’re lucky / smart enough to buy a car with a clutch the best thing you can do when you do lose control (either with snow, ice, rain or any other reason) is to steer straight (even when sideways), ram the clutch down and don’t touch the brake. That way the wheels will only have the forces from the road on them, hopefully regaining control quick enough to avoid anything significant.

    Some people just never learn. Last februari I was driving 70km/h through snow on a highway losing traction every few seconds, regaining it a few seconds later, hearing on the radio that some idiot was arrested 30km away, in the same weather, doing 180 (km/h, about 110-115mph).

  8. boxmonkey says:
    1. Keep some asphalt shingles in the back. The extra weight might give you some more traction, but more importantly, if you get stuck in the snow you can put them under your tires.
  9. ColinA says:

    Candy: Yes!

    Also, it may be obvious, but while everybody here mentions slowing down, nobody mentions that you should never touch the brakes…

    What’s much less obvious is that in particularly extreme conditions, it helps to leave your foot on the gas pedal if you’re already moving, especially if you don’t have a clutch (an engine with no input force to keep it from sapping kinetic energy can kill your traction just as surely as hitting the breaks will).  Keep it pressed just far enough to slowly lose speed.  I’ve been in cars that spun out simply from lifting foot from pedal.

  10. David Brooks says:

    I can’t highlight #2 enough. It’s the time where you must exercise complete rational control over your habits – slow down and then turn, no matter how dorky it feels.

    Also, loose snow and crunchy ice give you better traction than smooth ice. Pick where you put your wheels.

  11. Perhaps there should be a required cold-weather-driving course for Puget Sound employees…

  12. mirobin says:

    Another rule:

    The only thing spinning your wheels does is zamboni the ice…

  13. Mike says:

    Actually, it is not quite simple. You don’t want to change direction & speed in RWD car. But you do want to use accelerator in the turn in FWD car. Now, if you are moving sraight, you DONT have to slow down to 15mph. Inertia is the king and in fact, it helps you move straight. The car is often feels like slipping more at low speeds. Just make sure you start braking well before you have to stop or turn. Now, if you have tiptronic (ie shiftable) automatic transmission – learn how to use it. Brake with engine at 2nd gear. If your car claims to be AWD, it does not mean it really is. Most cars only connect another set of wheels when primary pair begins to slip. However, many cars have ‘AWD lock’ button. If yours does have it, press it and keep AWD system on at all times if it is icy. Stock tires on your car is crap, even if your car is expensive luxury model. Get good tires, reviews on are your friends.

  14. JJ says:

    Well, speaking as an old guy who learned to drive in a 1966 Pontiac Catalina about 40 miles south of Lake Erie, I think the way I’d put it is:



    That includes getting there.

    Having said that, things you don’t do:




    Unless you have to, and remember:



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