Best advice for driving in the snow? Start by slowing it down. We’re not just talking about how far you push the gas pedal. We’re talking about how fast you move your hands and feet. A lower-friction road surface means it takes more time for your tires to find grip and change your speed or direction.
If you’re accelerating from a stop, press the gas pedal smoothly and slowly. If you hear chattering from the wheels or you see an orange triangle flashing on your dashboard, it means your traction control is trying to restrain your exuberance. So lighten up on the pedal.
While steering, move your hands slowly and deliberately, the same way you would move your hands in a tai chi class. If you feel the wheel “slip” in your hands, that means the tires don’t have enough available traction to turn that hard, so unwind the wheel until the resistance feels normal. If you try to turn and nothing happens, straighten the wheel back out and slow down with a gentle, brief press of the brake, then try again. Don’t just keep turning the wheel and hoping—America cashed in its miracle on ice decades ago.
The things you see down there just might become relevant sooner than you think. The stop that might take 150 feet in the summer could take 300, 500, or even 1,000 feet in the snow. If there’s a stopped car, a stop sign, or a yeti in your way, you need to start planning now. Keep those eyes up and, for once, resist the urge to look at your phone. As a bonus, developing that habit will help you once summer rolls around. The best race drivers are always looking ahead to the limit of their vision, to have as much time as possible to do whatever needs doing. Where your eyes lead, your hands will follow.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that no matter how zen your driving style, no matter how deep the tread of your tires, you’ll lose control and start to spin. If you do, don’t panic: You can regain the upper hand. Turn the wheel in the direction of your slide with a deliberate motion. Don’t give it more than about half a crank.
Put on your snow tires, look all the way down the road, and keep those hands and feet nice and slow.
This isn’t instinctual—your brain feels the car slipping in one direction and logically wants to turn in the other direction to fix it—so it can be worthwhile to practice in a snow-covered empty parking lot somewhere. (Watch out for parking blocks.) Most modern cars have extremely well-developed stability-control systems, and if you turn the wheel slowly towards the slide and avoid stepping on the brake too hard, those systems will do a good job of straightening you out. When that happens, you won’t want to have the steering wheel turned too far away from straight ahead. So make a slow motion, not too far, and let your car do its job.
Off the freeway, at lower speeds, try to maintain momentum and prevent sliding by avoiding sharp braking or acceleration. Watch the pavement ahead: the more shine, the more slip there’s going to be. If you do get stuck, use very light throttle—no more than one-third of the available pedal travel—and let your traction control system work to pull you out. Don’t let that triangle on the dashboard flash for more than ten seconds or so. Your brakes could overheat, reducing the effectiveness of the system. Release the throttle and take a moment to recover. Most importantly, don’t forget that there are worse things than having to call for a tow, like being whacked by another car while you’re ineffectually trying to dig a tire clear of the snow.
In a perfect world, those of us who have to drive where it snows in the winter would get additional training in low-traction car control. That’s how some European countries do it, you know. But in a really perfect world, anytime it snowed, we’d all spend the day at home drinking hot chocolate and sledding, the way we did as children. Until that day comes, it’s best to put on your snow tires, look all the way down the road, and keep those hands and feet nice and slow.