How to Drive in Snow

Since the snow is coming down relentlessly in Columbia, I thought it would be good to give some advice on winter driving for grad students who find themselves in new climates. Being from San Diego myself, it took some learning to get comfortable with winter driving.

To begin, when you drive normally, there is a very good correlation between how you turn the wheel and which direction you’re moving due to the friction between the wheels and the road. If you’ve been driving the same vehicle for a while, this relationship should be ingrained. In freezing conditions, driving normally may cause disturbances to how your actions affect your vehicle. This feeling could be alarming since driving is usually so straight forward (ha!). You have to change your driving habits to avoid the loss of traction.

  1. Drive slower rather than faster. Driving slowly increases the amount of traction, keeping your vehicle from skidding. How slow should you drive? Experiment! If your vehicle seems to be very under control, gradually increase your speed. If driving starts to feel odd, there is a lag time between your action and the vehicles’, then drop your speed until it feels right again and stay well under the ‘upper limit’ you just discovered.
  2. Slow down a lot during turns. I remember reading the driving manual for the Playstation Game Gran Turismo, which had a quick primer for real life race car driving. It says that you can ‘spend’ your car’s friction three ways: accelerating, braking, and turning. If you want to maximize your ability to turn, don’t use your friction to accelerate or brake.
  3. Try to not stop. Moving from a full stop requires enough inertia to possibly cause your wheels to lose traction in the attempt to get going. If you see a red light ahead, slowly approach it so it will be green by the time you get to the intersection. Stop signs are pretty unavoidable.
    If you’re skidding, turn the wheels where you want to go (the same advice as “turn into the skid” in that the direction the car’s rear is moving is the direction of the skid. So if your car’s rear is sliding right (clockwise), causing you to turn counterclockwise, turn your wheels right (clockwise)). This is also how you drive in Halo, so that’s a handy reminder.
  4. I thought I should add this tidbit after a little adventure in the snow. When you’re starting from a full stop, your tires may spin out (that’s why you should try not to stop!). To get started again, point your tires straight and accelerate smoothly and slowly. Your vehicle should find enough traction to get going if you don’t accelerate too fast from a stop. It’s fairly normal to have a second or two of spinning your tires so don’t worry too much about it.

One last thing: how to clear your car from ice and snow. First, keep your ice scraper in the car but not in the trunk. Your trunk could be frozen shut! Ok, to get started, turn on your car. Then set the heat to the hottest setting, the fan to the highest setting, and direct it to the windshield. Hit the button for the rear defroster. Then grab the scraper. Make sure your car doors are unlocked. Make sure again! Then close the door so you’re outside with the scraper. Scrape the side windows and the lights. Then clear off the rear window, which should be partly melted from the defroster. Lastly, get the windshield. It takes the longest to soften. That’s it!

Next: how to walk on snow and ice and not fall over too many times.

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