Winter driving safety tips

Winter driving can be risky, so be prepared. Learn to adjust your driving for slippery roads and poor visibility. It's better to prevent an accident than to recover from one.

On this page:

Top 10 tips to prevent problems

  1. Ensure your vehicle is ready for winter in the fall
  2. Install four matching winter tires
  3. Pack an emergency kit
  4. Learn and practice winter driving skills before you need them
  5. Plan your trip: check road and weather conditions
  6. Remove all snow from your vehicle before each trip
  7. Give yourself extra travel time in bad weather
  8. Avoid using cruise control on slippery roads
  9. Travel with a fully charged phone
  10. Slow down and wear your seatbelt

Get your vehicle ready for winter

Winter weather is hard on your vehicle. Keep your vehicle in top working condition by following its manufacturer-defined maintenance schedule. In addition to regular maintenance, before winter strikes, beat the rush and go to a licensed facility to conduct a vehicle winterization inspection. Newer vehicles have systems that require a repair facility to hook up a computer to check that the systems are functioning properly. A check-up by a trained technician will help ensure no important items are missed. This can include an inspection of your vehicle's:

  • Battery: Your motor needs a fully charged battery to start in cold weather. Clean the battery posts and check the charging system and belts. Have your battery tested in the fall and spring. Replace weak batteries before they fail.
  • Lights: Make sure that all lights work and that the headlights are adjusted properly. Many new vehicles aim headlights automatically so they need to be inspected by a professional to ensure they remain in the proper position.
  • Brakes: Keep your brakes in top working condition with regular inspection by a certified technician according to your vehicle maintenance schedule, which you can find in the owner's manual. Check your brakes often to make sure that they brake evenly. Pulling, change in pedal feel, or unusual squealing or grinding may mean they need repair.
  • Exhaust system: Check for leaks that could send deadly carbon monoxide into your vehicle.
  • Heating and cooling system:  Check your radiator hoses and drive belts for cracks and leaks. Make sure the radiator cap, water pump and thermostat work properly. Test the strength and level of the coolant/anti-freeze, and make sure the heater and defroster work well.
  • Windshield wipers: Make sure that your wipers are in good condition. Replace blades that streak. Buy wipers designed for winter. Fill up on winter washer fluid in the -40°C temperature range and carry an extra jug in your vehicle.
  • Tires: Ensure your winter tires have at least 50% tread left for the safest winter driving. Tires should be inspected by a knowledgeable professional to ensure they continue to be safe to use. The best time to do this is during regular scheduled inspections according to your vehicle's maintenance schedule, and during the vehicle winterization inspection. Put the best tires on the rear of the vehicle to help maintain directional control. This means tires with the deepest tread depth should be installed in the back – however, tires that are rotated sufficiently often should have similar tread depth. Insurance companies may also provide a discount if you use winter tires.

    Check tire pressure often, especially before any highway driving or before longer trips. Properly inflated, high quality winter tires in good condition will give you best traction on winter roads and increase fuel efficiency.

    A tire that has good pressure when checked in a warm garage will be under-inflated when it is below zero outside. Tire pressure goes down in the cold, which is why you should do your checks when the tires are cold. Use the maximum pressure amount shown in the owner's manual or on the doorframe as a guide, but never go above the pressure shown on the tire sidewall. Check your spare tire pressure regularly as well.

    Having four matching tires (per the vehicle's tire placard or owner's manual) is essential to maintain safe vehicle handling. Never mix tires with different tread patterns, internal construction or size.

    Winter trie symbol
    Winter tires have been designed for snow. They're marked with a symbol on the side-wall: a peaked mountain with a snowflake. They meet high standards for winter traction performance and are different than “mud + snow” (M+S) rated snow tires.

    Winter tires are a good idea, and may even be legally required where you live. To learn more about winter tires, visit Transport Canada's Winter Tire Safety Tips and Be Tire Smart!

Watch the weather

It's a good idea to check local weather reports before you leave home. Environment Canada puts out warnings when they expect blizzards, heavy snow, freezing rain or drizzle, cold snaps, and winds. Many provinces and territories have “511” and smartphone apps for weather and road conditions as well as snowplow operations.

Prepare for winter driving

The safest strategy is to avoid driving in bad weather conditions

If you must drive, check weather and travel conditions before heading out. Give yourself extra time for travel and, if weather is bad, wait for conditions to improve. Always tell someone where you're going, the route you plan to take and when you expect to arrive. If you don't arrive on time, and people are worried about your safety, they'll know where to search for you.

If driving becomes too risky, turn back or look for a safe place to stop until it is safe to drive.

Keep a tank of fuel at least half full and if you drive an electric vehicle, ensure that it has enough range for unplanned events as the cold affects the range of the vehicle.

Be alert, well rested, and sober behind the wheel and always wear your seat belt

Winter driving can pose difficult driving conditions along with poor visibility so it is important to be vigilant and alert when driving.

As always, make sure you remain sober if you are the driver.

Ensure all passengers wear their seat belt correctly. It's the law.

See and be seen

Remove all snow from your vehicle's hood, roof, windows, and lights. Clear all windows of frost and fog. Some provinces can even issue fines if your vehicle is not clear of all snow.

If visibility becomes poor, find a place to safely pull off the road as soon as you can. It's best to stop at a rest area or exit the roadway and take shelter in a building.

Stay on main roads and drive carefully

Match your speed to the road and weather conditions. Avoid passing another vehicle when weather and road conditions are bad.

When you drive on a snow-covered road there may be more snow or slush between lanes than in the lane, making changing lanes more difficult.

Be prepared to make a call

Keep your phone fully charged. *911 is often a free call. But don't talk and drive. Let someone with you make the call, or pull over to a safe spot to place a call. If you do a lot of winter driving in areas with poor reception, think about getting a citizen's band (CB) radio.

Take a winter driving course

A winter driving course can get you direct experience in winter conditions and how to handle those situations safely. You can gain valuable experience through these courses by learning how to manage skidding and spinout situations in a safe environment.

Know your vehicle

Read the owner's manual to get a better idea of what features are in your vehicle, the warning symbols and what they mean, along with the manufacturer's recommendations. Some manuals describe specific control settings the driver needs to set to help get unstuck from the snow.

Keep these items in your trunk:
  • small shovel with a long handle
  • sand or kitty litter
  • traction mats
  • cloth or roll of paper towels
  • warning light, reflective safety triangles or road flares
  • extra socks, gloves, and footwear
  • emergency food pack
  • water bottles
  • booster cables
  • hand and foot warmers
  • fire extinguisher
  • extra windshield washer fluid
  • fuel line antifreeze
  • extra fuses
  • lock de-icer
  • small tool kit with screw driver, pliers, etc.
Keep these items in your vehicle:
  • road maps
  • ice scraper and snow brush
  • flashlight
  • first aid kit
  • blanket (special "survival" blankets are best)
 

Skidding

  • A good way to avoid skidding is to drive appropriately for road and weather conditions. Slow down in bad weather. Allow extra travel time and be very careful when you brake, change lanes, make turns and take curves.
  • Even careful and experienced drivers can skid, so be prepared. Skidding may be caused by panic braking when you're trying to avoid an obstacle on the road.
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC) (mandatory on most vehicles manufactured from 2012 onwards) helps to avoid skidding. ESC sensors compare the direction of the steering wheel to the direction the vehicle is going. When they are not the same, and the vehicle begins to skid, ESC applies the brakes to one or more wheels, or reduces engine power, or both, to help keep the vehicle under control.
  • In extreme weather don't use cruise control or other driver assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance, as they may not work well in winter weather. Review your owner's manual to understand the systems' capabilities and limitations.
  • In bad weather put more distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. The three second rule is a good tip. You should be able to count to three before you get to the same point in the road that the vehicle in front of you was at when you started counting.
  • Avoid forceful braking or sudden, jerking movement of the wheel.
  • Read the owner's manual to learn about your vehicle's braking system and tire traction.
  • You may also consider taking a winter driving course.

Safe braking

Proper braking is important to safe winter driving. Since it takes longer to stop on a slippery road, you should:

  • leave more distance than normal between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you
  • pay close attention to the road - as far ahead as you can
  • ensure that you don't release the brake pedal when the vehicle is out of control. Focus on steering with the brake pedal applied hard.

Stay calm

Stay calm if you get trapped in a storm or snow bank

Don't do any heavy lifting, shoveling or pushing in the bitter cold - it can kill.

Do make sure the tailpipe is not blocked by snow, to keep carbon monoxide from getting into your vehicle. Then, if your vehicle is not at risk of being hit by other drivers, stay inside so you have shelter. Going out into a storm puts you at risk of getting lost, or suffering from the cold.

You should also:

  • Keep a window on the side sheltered from the wind open a bit, to give you a good supply of fresh air
  • Run your motor as little as possible
  • Use hand and foot warmers, instead of the vehicle's heater
  • Wear a hat, since you can lose up to 60 per cent of your body heat through your head
  • Set out a warning light, reflective safety triangles or flares
  • Put on the dome light. Overuse of headlights may run your battery down
  • Exercise your arms and legs often
  • Stay awake
  • Watch for traffic or searchers

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