Adverse driving conditions contribute to more than 20 percent of car accidents each year, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) says. Weather-related crashes cause nearly 5,000 deaths and more than 418,000 injuries.
The vast majority of weather-related crashes occur during or immediately after rainfall, with 70 percent on wet pavement. Fewer crashes are blamed on winter conditions, 13 percent on icy pavement and 16 percent on snowy or slushy pavement. Only 3 percent happen in the presence of fog.
With adverse driving conditions returning soon, as the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, motorists should review tips for driving safely in challenging conditions.
Driving in Wet Winter Weather Conditions
Inclement weather reduces visibility, impairs driver capabilities, and adversely affects vehicle traction and maneuverability.
If you have the option, it is best to avoid driving in inclement weather. If you must, there are steps you should take to protect yourself and your passengers and steps you should know to take in the event of a crash. Review our downloadable Car Accident Glove Box Guide, and keep the tips below in mind this winter.
If you must drive, the best response to inclement weather or hazardous driving conditions is to slow down. Driving at lower speeds gives a driver a better chance of stopping, even on wet roads. The second defensive driving measure in bad weather is to increase your following distance — putting more space between you and the car ahead of you so you have more room to stop.
By and large, the wet conditions caused by bad weather are the primary driving hazard. Simply put, rain-soaked roads are slippery roads. Roads are slickest during the first 10 to 15 minutes of a rain. Ice and snow also reduce traction. Vehicles are harder to control and more prone to crash on slippery roads.
Some states have laws requiring drivers to turn on their headlights when they are using their windshield wipers, even during daylight. It’s a good safety precaution to increase your visibility to other motorists.
On wet roads, drivers should:
- Avoid Cruise Control. Wet conditions make it easier for a vehicle to lose traction and skid or hydroplane. Braking too hard can cause either problem. Cruise control requires you to brake to slow down. The safer option for slowing down in wet conditions is to ease up on the accelerator.
- Be Ready for Skidding or Hydroplaning. It’s easy to lose traction on wet or icy roads, no matter your speed. It’s also easy to say “don’t panic” if your car hydroplanes. In either situation, lift your foot from the accelerator but avoid slamming on the brakes. Steer in the direction you want the car to go. When you feel the tires grip the road again, accelerate gently to re-establish control of the vehicle. Hydroplaning typically occurs when cars are traveling at speeds above 50 miles per hour, so driving slowly can help prevent hydroplaning from occurring.
- Turn Around, Don’t Drown. Yes, you’ve heard the slogan of this national safety campaign Take it to heart. In heavy rains, water can pool quickly in low-lying areas. As little as 12 to 18 inches of flowing water can sweep away most vehicles, including large SUVs, according to FEMA. Another potential problem is that road beds could be washed out under flood waters. Do not drive through moving water, particularly at night or other times that you cannot clearly see road markings through the water.
Driving on Frozen Water: Ice, Snow, Sleet and Hail
Ice on a roadway can make it impossible for tires to grip the road and maintain traction.
- On Snow: Every snowfall is different. When you start driving on new snow, brake a few times away from traffic to gauge how well your brakes work. Maintain a steady speed and turn or brake as little as possible on snow. In deep snow, drive in other vehicles’ tire tracks. Slow your vehicle by lifting from the accelerator and feathering your brakes, then coast through a curve or turn. Change lanes gradually and after signaling well ahead. Snow will build up between lanes and likely freeze.
- On Ice and “Black Ice”: Remember that water, snow and sleet on bridges and elevated ramps freezes faster because these stretches of road are fully engulfed in freezing air temperatures. “Black ice” is clear ice that blends in with the color of the pavement, making it harder to detect. When a driver hits a patch of black ice or ice under snow, their vehicle may start to slide without warning. If you begin to slide on ice, don’t brake. Instead, lift your foot from the accelerator and steer in your intended direction until your tires regain traction.
Driving in the Glare of Winter Sun
The sun is lower in the sky during winter and can shine directly into drivers’ eyes just after sunrise and before sunset. Glare from the winter sun can make it hard to see the road ahead.
- Clear Your View. Make sure your windshield is free of dirt, grime and streaks. Don’t store papers or other items on your dashboard. Repair or replace a windshield that has pits or cracks.
- Cut the Glare. Polarized sunglasses can help reduce glare, and your vehicle’s sun visor can help block the sun. Use lane markings to help guide you and to rest your eyes momentarily as you glance at them and away from the sun. In long open stretches, turn on your headlights (which also illuminate taillights) to make your vehicle easier for others to see.
Driving in Winter Fog
In addition to reducing visibility, heavy fog also makes roads wet. In addition to slowing down and increasing following distances:
- Use Headlights or Fog Lamps. If your vehicle doesn’t have fog lights, use low beam headlights. High beams will reflect off heavy fog and reduce visibility further. Be cautious when cresting hills or rounding blind curves in foggy conditions. Signal well ahead of turns or lane changes.
- Tap your brakes. Drivers behind you in fog will be better alerted to your slowing or stopping if your brake lights blink a couple of times. It’s also good to tap your brakes as you enter a thicker fog bank to catch the attention of a following driver and warn them to fall back.