Car Safety: How to Drive in Weird Weather

Last Updated Dec 15, 2010 7:45 AM EST

As winter takes hold, weird weather is picking up. The Midwest has already been buried by blizzards, and there may be worse to come. Federal climate experts predict heavier-than-usual snows this winter in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains. Whether you're facing floods, blinding snow or icy roads, you need to know how to react if you find yourself driving in dangerous conditions. 

Some classic advice about bad-weather driving remains as good as ever. For instance, use winter tires if you will be driving in constant ice and snow. Slow down, way down if necessary. Turn on your lights so other drivers can see your car. And leave more distance than usual from the car ahead of you.

But thanks to changes in auto technology, some traditional advice on how to deal with skids and slides is no longer valid. "Techniques taught when most cars were rear-wheel drive don't work with front-wheel drive cars," says CEO Bill Buff of Driving Dynamics, a firm that teaches corporate employees to be safer drivers. And it is crucial to know whether your vehicle has anti-lock brakes, adds Buff. If so, your reactions need to be entirely different than with traditional brakes.


Do you have anti-lock brakes? About 70% of new cars have anti-lock brakes, but older models and sometimes cars from rental agencies will have standard brakes. You can tell when you first turn on the ignition and all the dash lights come on. If you have anti-lock brakes, you will see an ALB symbol or ABS -- for anti-lock braking system. If you go into a slide -- or have to slam on the brakes -- hit and hold anti-lock brakes. The system will pump them on and off swiftly to avoid locking the wheels. But if you have standard brakes, you want only to tap the brakes in a slide then quickly release them. If you hit and hold standard brakes, the wheels will lock -only worsening your situation.

Do you have front-wheel drive? Until the late 1970s, most U.S. cars were rear-wheel drive -- the opposite of today. If you learned to drive before that, your Dad or driving teacher may have taught you to steer gently in the direction of a slide to keep the rear wheels from swinging further around. But in a front-wheel drive car, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, says safe-driving expert Bill Buff, "You want to look and steer where you want the car to go." Thus if you are sliding to the right and you steer to the right, when the front wheels regain traction you will head right on off the road and into a ditch or worse. Instead, steer gently back toward your lane-where you want to wind up again. Not sure if your car has front-wheel drive? Check the owner's manual or, if that isn't handy, simply look up the Specs page for your vehicle on a web site such as Edmunds.com.

Will your four-wheel drive keep you safe? Owners of vehicles with four-wheel or all-wheel drive do have an advantage in bad weather. If one wheel loses traction, they have three others still working. But it is easy to overestimate this advantage -- and anyone who has seen an SUV hurtling past in a snowstorm knows it is a dangerously common mistake. That's especially true since  four-wheel drive often comes with tall SUVs, which --if they slide -- can easily hit a curb or other obstacle and tip over. In a slide, your reaction should be the same as with front-wheel drive. So if you have four-wheel or all-wheel drive, make the most of it. But slow down and don't push your luck.

Do you need winter tires? If you live in a climate where you expect only occasional light snow or if you don't commute in your car, the all-season tires that came as standard equipment may be adequate. But if winter ice and snow are chronic conditions where you live, buy winter tires. These tires have special treads and are made of softer rubber that gets much better traction in cold temperatures. You need four winter tires even if your car has only two drive wheels to even out the traction. As to cost, the Michelin X-ice winter tires, top-ranked by Consumer Reports, cost about $100 per tire. To make it easy to change with the seasons, get an extra set of wheels from a salvage yard. When spring comes, you can just swap wheels instead of the more cumbersome changing of all tires.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Cleveland Kid

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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