What to do if your vehicle loses traction on wintry roads
(WTAJ) – Nearly 900 people are killed on average in vehicle crashes during snowfall or sleet every year, according to the Department of Transportation, so what do you do if you start to lose control of the vehicle?
While it’s important to prepare ahead of time, even the most well-equipped drivers can lose control on sloppy, snowy and icy roads. That’s why it’s important to know before you go on what to do in the event your car loses traction and starts sliding.
Tires are created to maintain constant contact with the ground, so when wintery weather conditions occur, the likelihood of your tires gripping the road’s surface is decreased. This makes it easy to lose traction and fishtail/slide as your tires lose their grip. Slides can also happen due to driver errors, such as driving too fast, overconfidence, over-braking, over-steering and over-accelerating.
What to do if you lose control
It can be a scary feeling once your vehicle starts spinning. However, Dan Robinson with Ice Road Safety, whose mission is to reduce the number of accidents caused by road icing, demonstrated exactly what you need to do.
- Don’t panic: Although it may be hard, panicking is the most detrimental thing you can do. Try to remain calm so you don’t under or overcompensate trying to correct the vehicle
- Take your foot off the gas: If you feel yourself losing control of your vehicle, take your foot off the gas until you’ve regained traction. Using your accelerator will spin your vehicle’s wheels, making skidding worse
- Don’t apply your brakes: This will likely be your first impulse, but hitting your brakes can lock your vehicle up and make sliding worse, especially if you have an anti-lock brake system. To correct a slide, your wheels need to move freely. You should only gently tap the brake once your tires have gained traction
- Steer into the skid: Gently turn the wheel in the direction that the back of your vehicle is going. How much you turn the wheel depends on how fast and how far your car is sliding. Continue to do this until everything is aligned, and you can straighten your wheel
- Once you start correcting the slide, be prepared for the back of the car to swing in the other direction
- If you try to struggle against the slide by steering in the opposite direction the back of your vehicle is going or by oversteering, you risk spinning out
Here is a video by Robinson that demonstrates how to properly correct a slide.
How to prevent sliding
Winter storms are inevitable, and drivers are bound to experience some sort of sliding eventually. However, AAA suggested some of the following to try to reduce your chances of losing control.
- Drive slow: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration advises you to reduce your speed by 1/3 on wet roads and 1/2 or more on snow-packed roads. Slick, icy roads require even slower speeds
- Accelerate slowly: Accelerating too quickly can cause your tires to overspin and lose contact with the road
- Don’t slam on brakes: Hitting your brakes can cause the vehicle to start spinning. Leave additional stopping room so you can brake sooner and softer
- Don’t stop if you can avoid it: If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it. There is a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling
- Don’t power up hills: Applying extra gas on snowy roads will just make your wheels spin. Try to get a little inertia going before reaching the hill, and try to let that inertia carry you to the top
- Don’t use cruise control: Never use cruise control during snow, ice or even rain. If your car hydroplanes or skids, it will accelerate and rapidly spin the wheels since it will be trying to maintain a constant speed
- Fill your tank: Keep your vehicle’s gas at least half full. This will add more weight to your car, which can help with traction
- Get winter tires: Winter tires are built differently than all-season tires. They are made with hydrophilic rubber, and they have larger grooves between the blocks of tread, and some are even equipped with studs. All of these factors are designed to help the tire stay in closer contact with the road.
- More information on winter tires can be found via Tires Les Schwab’s website
What to do if you get stuck
Tires Les Schwab and Nationwide each gave a handful of tips on what to do if you find yourself in a pile of snow, as well.
- Clear a path around the tires: Try to dig snow and ice away from the drive tires a few feet in front and behind so you can move the car back and forth. Also, be sure to clear snow from your tailpipe to prevent carbon monoxide from building up in the vehicle
- Rock your car free of snow: Carefully driving forward and backward will help dislodge some of the snow around your wheels. However, be careful not to wreck the transmission. Try to brake at the peak of each “rock” so the car is motionless when it changes gears. It also helps to shift to neutral for a second before making the transition from drive to reverse
- Don’t floor the gas: Go easy on the pedal when going back and forth or else you risk digging deeper into the snow
- Add traction under the tires: If you still can’t get your car free, try using things such as sand, salt, dirt or kitty litter to improve traction and try giving it gas again
- Give it a push: If you can employ help, try having someone give you a push while gently pressing the gas
Supplies to keep in your car
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recommends you pack the following in your car:
- Flashlight and batteries
- Battery-operated radio
- Jumper cables
- Cellphone and charger
- Snow shovel
- Matches and candles
- First aid supplies
- Extra warm clothes and gloves
- Ice scraper
- Bottled water
- Non-perishable food
- Special accommodations (medications, baby supplies, pet food, etc.)
Know before you go
Finally, make sure you check the forecast before you head out. Knowing how icy the roads are and if there is an incoming storm later in the day can be the difference between making it home and getting stranded, or worse.