Winter weather ushers in a new host of risks for drivers. From cars that struggle to start to batteries that randomly stop working, cold weather can be a nuisance. Another way that it can hurt you as a driver? Ice. Driving on icy roads is one of the most dangerous things you can do with your car. However, there are a few tips to prevent your car from sliding on ice.
The best way to prevent sliding on ice is to avoid it altogether. When that’s not possible, remember to drive very smoothly and slowly. Reduce your speed, don’t hit the gas or brake too hard, and be fluid with how you adjust your steering wheel. Avoid back roads and hilly roads because they’re notoriously bad for ice.
In this ultimate guide, I’ll outline 12 of these tips. I’ll also address some general tips for winter driving and the best things to do if your car start sliding. This is a scary scenario but learning about it now might save you in the future.
What Causes Sliding?
Sliding is a simple product of physics. If you remove traction, you get sliding. If you run towards an ice rink then jump into the rink, you’ll just keep sliding in the same direction. No amount of wobbling and arms flailing will change that.
This is exactly what’s happening when your car slides over ice. Your vehicle relies on the rubber of your wheels and the pattern of the tread to establish grip. In normal circumstances, there’s more than enough grip to keep your car moving.
Ice has very little friction to offer meanwhile asphalt has a ton. During winter in the North, ice is a common problem because it’s so devastating. If you drove your car on the same ice rink I was just talking about, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change your direction. You could slam on the brakes and move the steering wheel all you want — you’ll just keep sliding in the same direction.
On a road, however, you don’t have a massive, uniform layer of ice. There are patches. All it takes is one of your wheels to hit a patch of ice and you could be sent into a slide.
It’s even easier to be sent sliding if your car is actively accelerating, decelerating, or turning. In any of these three scenarios, you have additional forces at play that make your car more vulnerable to sliding.
Actually, drifting works in a similar way to sliding. The way you start driving is to quickly lurch your car in one direction or another. Namely, you do one of the three things I just listed.
12 Tips for Preventing a Car from Sliding on Ice
These tips aren’t going to completely stop ice from affecting your car. My goal is to help you prevent ice from ruining your trip. Take a look and try them out.
1. Don’t Drive in the First Place
I hate to be “that guy” but the best way to prevent sliding on ice is to stay away from ice in the first place.
I realize this is easier said than done. Sometimes you have an emergency or can’t risk getting stranded where you are.
However, if there’s a choice, you should always choose to not drive at all. Even if you do everything right, you still run the risk of sliding on ice and totaling your car.
Before starting your car, ask yourself if there’s any way to avoid driving. Can you push back your plans, call out of work, or skip what you’re about to do?
2. Consider Snow Tires
Snow tires are a generally good idea if you live in a colder area. These seasonal tires offer extra grip. It means your car might manage to grab onto some bit of asphalt as you drive over icy and snowy roads.
During the other three seasons, you can store your tires in your garage or basement — really, wherever you have some extra space. In November or December, throw on your snow tires and leave them on until winter passes.
3. Avoid the Back Roads
Main roads have the luxury of having multiple cars drive over them. Every time a car drives over a patch of road, it warms up. With a constant flow of cars, the road will stay warm enough that the ice will melt away.
With back roads, that’s often not the case. Back roads are notoriously bad when it comes to black ice. They’re also windier, often narrower, and have plenty of hills. In other words, back roads are a recipe for disaster when it comes to ice.
If you can change your route to maximize your time on the highway, I would suggest it. It helps you to avoid ice.
4. Check for Wet/ Reflective Asphalt
While you’re driving, you want to be on the lookout for patches of road that look wet or reflective. This is a good sign that black ice is present. It could also just be a puddle, but you’re better off not assuming that.
Black ice is the worst-case scenario for your car. It’s a patch of road that offers no friction at all and you’re almost guaranteed to slide across it.
If you spot it in time, you can get prepared. You shouldn’t try to swerve to avoid it or slam on your brakes proactively — either of these measures could cause the slide to be even worse.
5. Watch Your Speed
Sliding on the ice becomes way worse if you’re driving too fast. Going too fast will also limit your reaction time, require a longer stopping distance, and make sliding more dangerous.
To avoid a bigger issue, mind your speed. There’s nothing wrong with going 15 or 20 mph slower than the posted limit if that makes you more comfortable. I’d suggest putting on your hazards if you’re going that slowly.
No police officer is going to pull you over and ticket you for going too slow on snowy and icy roads, as long as your hazards are on and you’re not driving recklessly.
Even if you’re tempted to hit the gas a little harder and get home faster, it’s not worth it in the end.
6. Accelerate Slowly
Whenever you do accelerate, you need to do it slowly. Stomping on the gas can make your tires slip and result in you completely losing traction.
Practice pushing the gas pedal down very slowly at a measured rate. This is your best bet.
7. Don’t Press the Brakes Too Hard
The same is true for the brake pedal. If you stomp on your brakes, your tires can skip and lead you into a slide.
The worst part about starting a slide from braking is that it will most likely cause your car to start turning as well. If you look at the physics of your car slowing down on the ice, you’ll understand why your car will start turning. Once that happens, sliding can be way more dangerous.
8. Check Your Brakes
Before you hit the road, you should check the health of your brakes. This is always best to do before winter begins.
The big things you’re looking for are:
- Sponginess. Do you have to press your brake pedal a bit before anything starts happening?
- Pads are thin. When the brake pads get too thin, you need to replace them. Going too long without doing so will extend your braking distance and put you in unsafe situations.
- Squeaking when you brake. This is a sign that your brakes are near the end of their life and need to be changed immediately.
- Uneven wear on your tires. One reason tires wear unevenly is because one of your brake calipers is stuck.
- A smell when you brake. Smelling something when you’re driving is never a good sign. If you smell something burning after braking, check the status of your brakes.
If you notice any of these problems, you need to address them immediately. Driving over ice with unhealthy brakes will make driving even more unsafe.
9. Make Sure Your Tires are Healthy
While you’re checking out your brakes, take a look at your tires as well. Ensure that there is an equal amount of tread on all four tires, and each tire doesn’t have any low or high spots on the tread.
Check the sides of the tires and look for cracks, bulges, or any holes. If you spot any of these, you’ll need to change your tires before getting on the road.
Make sure you have enough tread. If there’s not enough, your grip will be minimized and you’ll be more susceptible to sliding on the road.
10. Stay Calm
A big part of preventing sliding comes from how you think while you drive. The most critical thing to do is to stay calm during your whole trip.
I know that it’s easy to get stressed and anxious and want to rush to your destination to minimize how long you’re on the road. I assure you that this is the wrong mentality. You want to stay calm during the trip. It’s going to take longer than normal, but it’s better to arrive late than to have an accident on the way.
I like to put on calming music or a nice podcast whenever I have to drive in tough conditions. It helps ease me a little, and it might do the same for you.
11. Move Your Steering Wheel Slowly
The other piece of the puzzle is how you operate your steering wheel. If you correct your wheel too sharply over ice, you’ll force your car into a spinout.
Whenever you adjust your steering wheel, it should be done very slowly and fluidly. Avoid swerving your wheel altogether.
In fact, moving a steering wheel quickly in one direction is part of how professionals get their cars to drift. If you do the same over ice, you’ll have the same result.
12. Stay Away from Hilly Roads
Gravity is especially troublesome on an icy road. It’s possible to lose control while going up or down a hill, and not regain it until you’re at the bottom of the hill.
If you go over a hilly road and hit a patch of ice, your car won’t know how to correct it. Gravity will pull your car down the hill, and your pedals and steering wheel won’t do anything to help.
I’ve personally experienced this before. I was driving home from work, and everything was fine until I tried going up a hill to my house. My car got halfway there then hit a little ice and just slid back all the way to the base of the hill. Luckily no one was behind me.
Just like avoiding back roads, if you can avoid hilly roads then you’ll be better off.
Also, just so you know, going extra fast up a hill won’t help you get up it. It will just make things worse and more dangerous if you do lose control.
8 Other Tips for Driving in Icy Conditions
In this section, I’ll talk about other tips to keep in mind. These won’t necessarily prevent your car from sliding, but they’ll help you get to your destination.
1. Ignore the Pressure from Cars Around You
It’s easy to feel peer pressure as you’re driving on a snowy or icy road. Some drivers will act like nothing’s different and fly down the highway at highway speeds.
Other drivers will tailgate you impatiently, flash their high beams, or even honk. Don’t let it get to you.
You’re intentionally driving safer, so you’ll arrive home in one piece. If they want to get around you, then they can do that without pressuring you to speed up.
If you give in to the pressure and start going faster than you feel comfortable going, that’s when the trouble starts. You are more likely to slide on ice as you drive faster and more nervously.
My advice? Let them tailgate, flash their high beams, and honk away. If it gets too scary, you can pull over to the shoulder and let them pass you. Otherwise, keep doing what you’re doing.
2. Give Yourself Plenty of Space to Stop
Stopping distances are dramatically different when there’s ice around. Going 35 mph on a dry road requires about 60 feet to come to a complete stop. On an icy road, it takes 600 feet or more. That’s more than 10 times further.
If you start applying your brakes from the same distance that you typically do on a dry road, you might go right through the intersection without stopping.
Give yourself plenty of space to stop. It’s better to have extra space at the end than to run out and slide into another car.
3. Your Car Doesn’t Change How Ice Works
Having a bigger, heavier, more powerful vehicle that has a higher riding distance will not change how ice works.
In fact, ice becomes more dangerous for vehicles that are heavier. Inertia factors in weight and speed. The heavier you are, the more it takes to stop your vehicle.
That means if you and a semi-truck run over the same patch of ice, their rig will slide a lot further than your car will.
I only say this because I don’t want you to have a false sense of confidence on an icy road. Your big pickup truck will slide out just the same as a Camry, so don’t assume you can go faster and drive more dangerously.
4. Assume You’ll Hit Ice and Prepare for it
It’s a good idea to just assume that you’ll hit a patch of ice. By doing this, you won’t be caught off-guard if it actually happens.
As you’re driving, just remember the tips in this guide. Keep them fresh in your mind so things don’t get worse as you’re driving.
The worst results happen when someone is surprised by ice and doesn’t know what to do. They might slam on their brakes and swerve their steering wheel hard, escalating things.
5. Remember: Roads Can Be Icy Above 32 Degrees
Just because your thermometer says it’s 33 degrees F doesn’t mean that there’s no ice on the roads. Overnight, the roads get exceptionally cold. They could easily be 10 degrees colder than the air you’re getting a temperature from.
If you’re waking up after a cold night, there’s a good chance the road has patches of ice on it. If it rained the day prior then got cold, then the chances are even higher.
Don’t assume the roads will be ice-free when it’s warmer than 32.
6. Bridges are the First to Freeze, Be Careful
Roads that are above bridges get even colder. You’ll often see signs that warn you about this phenomenon near bridges. Why does it happen? Well, the air around the bridge can be really cold. If there’s water under the bridge, then it’ll be even colder.
Since heat isn’t being trapped, there’s nothing slowing down the icing process. I’ve had plenty of experiences where the bridge near my house was nearly frozen solid while the rest of my commute was fully thawed.
7. Keep Your Vision Clear
It’s important to spend some time deicing your windshield before leaving. If you just count on your wipers to do all the work, you’ll prematurely ruin your wiper blades and could even damage your windshield.
If your windows aren’t cleared off, you won’t be able to see as well. When this happens, you won’t be able to spot ice on the road and things will get messy.
It always scares me seeing those cars on the highway in winter that only have a tiny porthole thawed out of their windshield. If you didn’t need to see all around you, windows would be made out of metal, not see-through glass.
Do the safe thing and ensure you have a complete and clear vision from the driver’s seat before you go anywhere.
8. Practice Driving on Ice in an Empty Parking Lot
One of the best driving exercises I was a part of was going to an empty lot after a rainstorm during a freezing day in February. The parking lot had plenty of ice patches on it. I took this opportunity to practice driving on ice.
I learned that my car was very sensitive when driving on the ice. All it took was a tap of the gas pedal, brake pedal, or quick jolt of the steering wheel and I could initiate a slide at low speeds.
I practiced my response to sliding on ice so I knew what to do in the real world if I encounter it. In fact, most of the tips I wrote out so far were from that single experience.
If you have access to a large parking lot that’s completely empty, it might be a good idea to do a little testing. This is something that I wish we learned in Driver’s Ed, but it never came up.
What to Do if You Start Sliding on Ice
What happens if the worst thing happens, and you encounter ice? Once your vehicle starts sliding, there’s very little you can do to make things better. There are a lot of things that can make it worse, though. Here are some broad ideas to keep in mind if your vehicle starts sliding.
Focus, But Don’t Panic
Staying focused is imperative. Your natural response is going to be to panic, but I urge you to try to fight through it. Panicking is going to make things much worse.
When you’re focused, you’ll make better decisions during this slide.
Take Your Foot Off the Pedal
First and foremost, take your foot completely off the pedals. Don’t touch the gas or brake at all. Eventually, you’ll want to apply the brakes slowly, but that isn’t a concern at first.
If you hit the gas or brake too fast to get away from the ice, the slide will be much worse. Sliding in a straight line is much more manageable than sliding and spinning at the same time. With your foot off the pedals, you have a higher chance of sliding in a straight line.
Hold Your Steering Wheel Still and Firmly
You don’t want your wheel slipping out of your hand during this process. Just like the pedals, your steering wheel can make things worse.
You’ll want to avoid quickly turning the wheel in whatever direction you think is right. For now, you just want to hang on for a second and evaluate what’s going on.
Basically, it should look like a snapshot a second before you started sliding: your hands should be in the same position, holding your steering wheel the same way.
Slowly Steer into the Slide
Now that you had a second to think, it’s time to start acting. First, you want to slowly steer your wheel in the direction of the slide. Just to say it again — do it slowly.
I know, this idea seems really counterintuitive. If you’re sliding towards a ditch, why would I tell you to aim towards it? This is the only way for your wheels to get traction again.
If you are sliding to the right and your wheels are pointed to the left, you have the least amount of traction going the correct way. If you point your wheels to the right, now you can hope that the tread of your tires will start doing its job.
Also, I should define what “into the slide” means. Whichever direction the entire vehicle is traveling in is the direction of the slide. It doesn’t matter which way you’re pointing.
Think of it this way — you want your car to go straight but instead, it’s going diagonally to the right. You should slowly turn your steering wheel to the right so your wheels start going the direction your car is sliding.
Forget the Windshield, Look Where You’re Sliding
It’s our nature to keep looking forward out of the windshield. During a slide, there’s a good chance you’re not sliding straight. Forget the windshield, look out of whatever window gives you the best line of sight towards the direction you’re going.
This might mean turning your head completely sideways while sitting in the driver’s seat. That’s perfectly okay.
It’s important that you know what you’re heading towards.
Gently Apply the Brakes
After you do all this, you can finally start applying the brakes. If you’re still sliding on ice, your brakes won’t do anything. Just apply them gently and keep constant pressure on the pedal. You’re hoping for a bit of asphalt to peek out so you can finally get some grip.
Modern cars have Anti-Lock Braking systems built-in. This will help prevent your brakes from locking up as you do this, which is nice. You might also have a traction control system built in which will control your engine throttle as your wheels lose grip.
Wait and Hope
Now all you can do is just wait and hope. Keep the brake gently pressed, the wheel turned in the correct direction, and your eyes glued in the direction you’re sliding.
After enough time, your car will come to a stop. The hope is that it stops before hitting something. Regardless, it’s out of your control now, you already did everything you could.
As you can see, driving on icy roads can be really dangerous. If you can’t avoid making the trip, then make sure you keep it slow and controlled the whole way. For more tips, you can look at my website. I also have some winter products that will help you to have in your car or garage.