Driving on Snow and Ice

By Philip Schmidt, Networx

I learned to drive with an early-80s Mercury Zephyr, a car that symbolized virtually everything that was wrong with the American auto industry at the time. It was rear-wheel drive, of course, and it handled like a refrigerator on a moving dolly. Because I was in high school and had to spend my money on things like beer and ski passes, decent tires were out of the question. Nevertheless, the Zephyr and I made it through numerous Colorado winters without a scratch, and that jalopy turned out to be the best driving instructor a cocky teenager could have (provided he survived the education).

Tread Lightly, Grasshopper

More than anything else, winter driving takes a soft touch. The last thing you want to do is exactly what many people end up doing: tensing up, gripping the wheel with white knuckles, and braking sharply at the first sign of slippage. If this sounds familiar, try to remember to stay loose. Your tires on the road are just like your boots on an icy sidewalk: the goal is to avoid sudden movements. Do this by anticipating changes in speed and direction and turning the wheel or applying the brakes much sooner and gentler than you normally do on dry roads. When pulling away from a stop, press the gas pedal very lightly at first — the idea is to get the wheels rolling without slipping, and the inertia of the car is greatest at first. Once you get started, gradually give it more gas (so you can make it through the light before it turns red or to prevent the monster truck behind you from rolling over your roof).

Let Off the Gas

This is the most basic rule of winter driving. If you start to slide while accelerating, simply take your foot off the gas, then steer where you want the car to go. Here’s why: Sliding wheels don’t steer the car; they just move in the direction of the slide. Once the wheels start slipping, keeping your foot on the gas only makes them slide more. Letting off the gas allows the car to coast so the wheels can start to roll forward instead of just spinning out.

In the days before ABS brake systems, the same rule applied to “pumping” the brakes. That is, letting off the brakes intermittently so you can steer effectively while slowing down. Now brakes do the pumping for you, so the rule is to keep your foot down on the break — as gently as is safely possible — until the car slows down.

Hills and Stop Signs

As confident as I am on slick roads, I’m always particularly cautious when approaching descents and stop signs…or the worst-case scenario: a stop sign at the bottom of a hill. Going downhill is hazardous because gravity is working against you, no matter how slowly you’re going. Stops signs are bad partly because Newton’s first law is working against you (bodies in motion tend to stay in motion), but mostly because most people are bad snow drivers and they wait too long before breaking at stop signs. This leads to repeated sliding, which turns the last 10 or 15 yards in front of a stop sign into a skating rink. The solution for both hazards is to break early. Slow the car before you start down a hill; you’re much more likely to slide if you start breaking on the way down. At stop signs, slow down 50 yards before the intersection, and then roll at an easy rate up to the stop. Don’t wait until you’re on that ice rink to apply the breaks.

Front-Wheel Drive vs. All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive cars are considerably better on slippery roads than front-wheel drive cars merely because they provide better traction during acceleration. When breaking or when steering in a coast, all-wheel drive performs no better than front-wheel drive. The benefits of all-wheel drive are most noticeable when pulling away from a stop and when turning a corner while accelerating. You’re also much less likely to get stuck with all-wheel drive. The downside of all-wheel drive is that it can make you feel invincible (not to mention impatient with all the “granny” drivers and poor saps in Mercury Zephyrs sliding around in front of you). So if you want to go with a 4-by-4, just don’t drive like one of those yahoos in Ford Broncos that you see off the road when you leave the safety of the tile roofing of Phoenix (or wherever you are).

Are Snow Tires Worth It?

After driving in winter for many years both with and without snow tires, I can say unequivocally that snow tires really do make a big difference. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the importance of good tires for all seasons. Consumer Reports feels the same way. (Clearly, my priorities have changed since high school. Or, rather, now I can buy beer and good tires.)

Preparing Now for an Easier Winter
10 Ways to be a Considerate Neighbor
Make Your Home Bike-Friendly


Jay Digiandomenico
J Digiandomenico6 years ago


Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe6 years ago

With our first snow here, everybody forgets how to drive in it, and drivers have slide offs and accidents galore.

By the secoind snow, some drivers remember and some just act stupid.

By the time we get the third snow, everybody is a pro. (LOL)

Laura G.
Laura Garrett6 years ago

All good advice...but PLEASE, learn how to spell. It's BRAKE, BRAKES and BRAKING. This is embarrassing.

Brianna L.
Past Member 6 years ago

Unlike most I prefer a rear wheel drive. When I get a new car or new tires the first time bad weather hits I head for a large empty parking lot and see what it can and can't do. I spin, slide brake hard, basically play :) I have never had an accident or ended up in a ditch. I do see a lot of people in the ditch that have passed me though. Barbara is right; know what your car can do.

Bridget M.
Past Member 6 years ago

Thanks. Too bad more people don't take such good advice.

Victoria Pitchford
Vicky P6 years ago


Rebecca S.
Rebecca S6 years ago

yes...I'm not sure why so many people in Vancouver still struggle so much with driving in snow...


Thanks for the article... Actually, here in Australia, we don't need this advice unless we are going up into the mountains, but this article makes a lot of sense.. I learned to drive in England many years ago and lived in the hills on a farm in the country and one of the first things I learned from my father was how to drive in the snow and ice. He had been a racing driver and although I see that one of our Care 2 friends did NOT like the idea.. he taught me the old idea of steering into the slide.. if the slide was to the right.. then you turn the wheel to the right and vice verca.. It does work!! You just swing away like a waltz until you come to rest, hopefully, gacefully eventually at a stop!... If you are just creeping along you shouldn't come to much harm AND DON'T PUT THE BREAK ON! Not until you are almost stopping.. Just go with it and don't panic!.. and NEVER change gear just before the crest of a hill to go down.. Do what this article says.. go REALLY slowly and make sure you are in a low gear lng before you need to do that descent. I must admit that I used to quite like a slide or two.. I can remember slipping and sliding around the cobbled streets in the Winter in Edinburgh in my mis-spent youth and thinking it was great fun! I know that YOU won't be so stupid though!!!

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy6 years ago

Good tips...teach you children too.

Mary L.
Mary L6 years ago

Hill and stop signs: Why not say, avoid avoid avoid bridges too.

There is a hill at the bottom of a very popular road in Marietta, GA. Every time it snows/ices there are multiple car wrecks there. There's a stop light at the bottom and after 1 or 2 cars, it's one hundred percent ice.

Six/tenths of a mile north, before the hill, is a cross street to highway 41/Cobb Parkway. further north more cross streets to Highway 41/Cobb.