When are roads most dangerous?
When there’s been rain or snow and the temperature is within 10 degrees of freezing—22 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit. In that situation, ice is melting and refreezing, and there could be a layer of water on top of ice or even “black ice,” which is nearly invisible—a crystal-clear glaze that blends with the road surface.
You can’t see it at all?
Not really. But when your headlights reflect off the road at night, that’s black ice. It tends to be on bridges, which trap the cold; in the shadows of tall buildings, where the sun can’t hit it; and at intersections, due to drains. That’s why, in bad weather, you should slow down a couple of hundred feet before stop signs and lights. People often hit their brakes at the last second, and intersections become curling rinks.
On the highway, how much space should there be between you and the car ahead of you?
I tend to follow people like I’m driving a tractor trailer, meaning that I stay back 100 yards—about the length of a football field. That seems like a lot, but you’re going to need room to stop in case that person brakes suddenly. Still, it’s close enough to use his headlights to see what’s up ahead.
What speed should you be driving on icy or snowy roads?
It’s best to go about 10 miles per hour below the speed limit until you get a feel for the road. If it still feels iffy, cut back another five miles per hour until you’re comfortable. Don’t worry what the guy behind you is thinking. If he wants to sit on your back bumper, he’s welcome to do so. (See more safe driving tips for bad weather.)
Does that apply if you have all-wheel drive?
Yes. Don’t get cocky just because you have a little extra traction. If you hit a slippery patch, it’s just as hard to stop as if you had two-wheel drive.
What about when it’s raining?
Slow down by at least 10 miles per hour. At certain speeds, your car may hydroplane—lift off the ground so you’re driving on a layer of water. Don’t panic. Gently take your foot off the gas until the car slows down and feels normal again. And if you’ve hit a big puddle, tap the brakes immediately afterward. This creates heat and friction, which helps dry the brakes.
What if there’s a big curve coming up and you’re scared of sliding?
Gradually start turning the steering wheel and feathering the brakes lightly before the curve. Then coast through it with your foot off the brake and off the gas, so as not to gain speed. When you have your foot on the brake, the wheels stop turning. That’s when the car loses control and goes in any direction that momentum decides to take it, sort of like a toboggan.
We always hear that we should turn into a skid, but how do we do that when our impulses tell us not to?
You have to make a conscious effort to override the fear. I talk myself through the motions in my head: “Relax. Turn into the skid.” Remember that the most important thing is to keep the wheels turning so you can control the direction of the car. Rather than braking to slow down, take your foot off the gas. Say you’re sliding to the left. Gently turn the steering wheel to the left. This cancels out the skid. The car corrects itself and goes straight. If all else fails and you have the option to do so safely, leave the road and drive the car into a snow bank.