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Winter driving safety tips

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Adverse weather contributes to about a 6th of the 6.3 million auto accidents that occur on U.S. roads every year. Fog, rain, ice and snow are weather conditions more common in the winter months, which means it’s essential for drivers to take time each year to prepare for driving in winter. 

According to FHWA:

  • 21% of all car accidents are weather related.
  • 18% of weather related accidents occur during winter precipitation.
  • During a 10 year average, snow/sleet contributed to more than 219,900 accidents.
  • 2% of crash fatalities are caused by winter road conditions.

Safe winter driving tips include having the proper driving equipment, practicing safe driving techniques, and evaluating your insurance coverage to ensure you are financially protected in the event of an accident or collision. 

What is winter driving?

During the winter, various weather conditions can make driving more hazardous than it would be during other seasons. Snow, ice, sleet and slush pose a risk whenever a driver — new or experienced — gets behind the wheel. Not only can accidents occur due to weather, a crash can also be caused by the condition of the roadway or a vehicle malfunction. 

The safe winter driver checklist

There are several techniques you can adopt for winter driving, but keep in mind these are just guidelines for altered road conditions. Reaction to road conditions are largely dependent on your car’s steering, brake responsiveness and tire traction. 

  1. Get your tires’ tread condition professionally inspected one month before your hometown anticipates winter weather. Additionally, be aware that low temperatures can drop your tire pressure, so you’ll want to keep an eye on each tire’s PSI during the winter driving season. 
  1. Snow driving tip: learn how your car handles in the snow in a safe, secluded area before you take it out. Brake, accelerate, make hard turns (safely) etc. You need to know how your car drives in adverse conditions before you put yourself at risk.
  1. Plan your drive before you hit the road. This means looking up your route on your state’s Department of Transportation website, as well as reading up on future weather conditions. 
  1. Do some research on how to react properly should you skid while driving (there are plenty of Youtube videos on this). Most people turn their wheel in the opposite direction and slam on the brakes, which is actually the exact opposite of what you should do.  
  1. Accelerate, brake, and turn more slowly. All in all, take your time and give yourself time. Never speed during harsh road conditions. In fact, you may want to drive well below the speed limit depending on the weather and road conditions.  
  1. Use your common sense. If it seems too dangerous to be out driving, then it probably is.
Vehicle checkInsurance check
Always clear off all snow from your car (including the roof and tailpipe).
Visually inspect your tires and check each tire’s PSI level before driving.
Test your heater and defroster to ensure they are working properly (do not travel if they aren’t).
Make sure you are up-to-date with payments.
Understand what coverage you have.
Consider purchasing comprehensive and collision to be better protected.
Have a paper copy of your insurance information in your glove compartment.
If your insurance company offers an app, install it (this makes filing a claim and asking for roadside assistance super easy).

Emergency road kit essentials

No driver is immune to accidents— especially during the winter months. It is for this reason that you should always travel with an emergency roadside kit. You don’t want to put either your loved ones or yourself in unnecessary danger by not being prepared. 

Your kit should include the bare essentials— meaning jumper cables, a flashlight, a small shovel, a bag of sand and a set of chains. If you get into an accident, you definitely want a roadside visibility kit to warn other drivers. 

You can either put together your own kit, or purchase a pre-assembled one. However, no matter which route you take, you should consider the following additions:

  • Tools: jack, lug wrench, shovel— whether it’s changing a tire, or carving yourself a path through snow, you don’t want to be without these must-have tools.
  • Chains— even all-weather tires may not be good enough during harsh weather conditions. Chains add extra grip in icy conditions.
  • Extra car fluids: oil, washer fluid and antifreeze— Extremely low temperatures put extra strain on your car, which is why it’s good to have backups should your car start acting up.
  • Non-clumping kitty litter, sand or de-icer— Anything that helps your car get extra traction can save you, should it become temporarily stuck.
  • Flares, reflectors and flags— If you get stranded, you need to give other drivers a visual cue where you are so additional accidents don’t take place.
  • Road maps— Cell phone GPS is known to go out in certain areas when weather conditions are abnormal. For this reason, you’ll want to have a physical map just in case you have to take an unfamiliar route to your destination.
  • Extra warm clothes, boots, hat and gloves— if your car turns off and you’re stranded, you’ll need to stay warm until help arrives.
  • Ice scraper and snow brush— Never drive with an icy windshield or a snow packed roof. It’s dangerous to you and other drivers on the winter roads.
  • Cell phone and car adapter— In case you need to call for help, you’ll want a cell phone and a charger. In cold weather, batteries don’t hold a charge for as long. 
  • Rechargeable flashlight— A flashlight will help if you need to change your tire, find a missing item or to get a better idea of your surroundings.
  • First aid kit— Emergency help may not be able to get to you as fast as you need, so always have an emergency first aid kit to use until help arrives.
  • Matches or lighter— You never know when you might need to make a fire to stay warm or to signal for help, especially if you’re in a life threatening winter situation.
  • Battery jumper cables— Low winter temperatures make car batteries less efficient. Jumper cables can be used to bring a dead battery back to life long enough to get you home or to a mechanic. 
  • Extra food and water— You can’t ever know how long you’ll be stranded in the winter, so you’ll want to keep emergency rations on hand to hold you over.
  • Blanket/sleeping bags— your body loses heat when you sleep. Though your car will provide protection from the wind, it will still be too cold to sleep in unless you have an emergency blanket. If you get stranded in your vehicle during a winter storm, this can be an essential addition. 
  • Pocket knife— as with a lighter or matches, there are a variety of situations in which you may need a pocket knife — whether for prying something open or cutting things that bind in your wheels. 

How winter driving affects insurance rates

It’s sometimes difficult to predict how fault will be determined in any given accident, but it’s important to know that insurance companies don’t give grace just because weather conditions worsen. Even if you did everything you could to prevent sliding on a patch of black ice, you’ll still be held liable for any resulting collisions. 

In general, car insurance premiums increase by about 34-44% after an accident if you are found to be at-fault. However, there are a variety of factors that influence how much more you’ll pay— chief among them is which state you live in and which insurance company you’re with. 

During the holidays, you may be inclined to loan cars to visiting relatives and friends to go shopping, sightseeing or for other purposes. It’s important to know how your insurance applies if a friend is involved in a collision and is not listed on the policy

If you prefer not to drive in the winter at all, you can opt to put your car in ‘storage’, which effectively suspends coverage for a vehicle that is not going to be driven for a period of time — usually about 6 months. You’ll pay a much cheaper premium on this vehicle for the interim, and you ensure coverage does not lapse. Some providers may require you to remove your battery to ensure it is not driven. Depending on whether or not the vehicle is financed, you might not be able to opt for storage at all.

With the higher risk of accidents in inclement weather, having adequate coverage is essential. Winter months are a good time to evaluate whether or not you have any gaps in coverage.

The takeaway

  • Winter weather conditions increase the chance of an accident.
  • Practicing safe driving techniques in inclement weather can help you become a more controlled winter driver. 
  • An emergency road kit is essential to keep in your vehicle during winter months. 
  • Review your auto insurance policy and make the necessary adjustments before winter arrives to ensure your coverage is adequate. 

Winter driving can be intimidating and risky for even the most seasoned drivers. Whether it is snowing or the roads are icy, a collision can occur suddenly, despite your best efforts. However, if you make necessary preparations for the dangerous conditions and the increased possibility of a collision, getting behind the wheel in the winter may not be as intimidating if you take your winter driving safety seriously.

Lauren Ward

Lauren Ward is a writer for Coverage.com. She specializes in all things personal finance, including insurance, loans, and real estate.

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