Proceed with Caution
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Operating a vehicle safely in winter weather can be a challenge for even the most experienced drivers. It’s easy to forget after months of mild conditions that snow and ice demand careful driving and special preparation for your vehicle. When 17% of all vehicle crashes occur in cold weather conditions, it’s clear we could all use a refresher when it comes to making our way through a winter wonderland. Readying your vehicle
Driving safely begins before you even get on the road. Vehicle preventive maintenance checks and services is the starting point for safe driving year-round. In winter, pay special attention to your vehicle’s battery, wipers, coolant, tires and other systems that can take a beating when the temperature drops. When you know your vehicle is ready for the road, clear the snow, ice or dirt from the windows, forward sensors, headlights, taillights and backup cameras.
If you’re using snow tires, have them installed before the white stuff begins to fall. Check state and local laws and the Department of Transportation when it comes to winter tires and the use of snow chains. Most states only permit snow chains for hazardous weather or other related incidents, as long as they do not damage the highway surface. Studded tire use varies by state. Some states only allow the use of rubber studs, while others dictate specific dates for their use. To find out the rules for tire chains in your state, visit the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Digest of Motor Laws at https://drivinglaws.aaa.com/tag/tire-chains/. AAA lists states’ studded tire laws at https://drivinglaws.aaa.com/tag/studded-tires/.
If you’re stationed in Europe, remember that Germany has always had requirements for winter tires during the ice and snow season. However, in 2015, those requirements turned into a much more specific federal law for all of Germany. And since January 2018, there’s a new winter tire requirement and symbol. Here’s what you need to know:
- Most German motorists have long known the old rule of thumb for putting snow tires on the vehicle: von O bis O, which is short for von Oktober bis Ostern (from October to Easter). It is a recommendation that one should make the change from regular tires to snow tires in October and leave them on until Easter. The new German law does not set any time limits, but it does clearly state that under icy conditions (bei Glatteis, Schneeglätte, Schneematsch, Eis- und Reifglätte) you must not drive without snow tires on your vehicle. So, since it’s difficult to predict the weather, for all practical purposes, the old “von O bis O” rule still applies.
- As of January 2018, newly fabricated winter tires must be marked with an Alpine symbol — a three-peaked mountain pictogram with a snowflake. The new icon is more than a symbol, though. It also reflects the new law that spells out what a winter tire is and sets updated standards. Existing winter tires (M+S-Reifen) with only the old M+S mark will be allowed until Sept. 30, 2024, but the ADAC German automobile club recommends getting new tires with the Alpine three-peak mountain mark as soon as possible. The new law also applies to trucks and buses, but motorcycles are exempt.
- If the police catch you driving in winter conditions without winter tires, you’ll have to pay a fine (Bußgeld) of 60 euros, plus a point against you in Flensburg* and possibly an increase in your auto insurance premium. If you are involved in an accident or you block traffic in icy conditions without Alpine tires, the fine goes up to 80 euros and a point against you in Flensburg. (*Flensburg, Germany, is the headquarters for the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA). The KBA adds or removes points assessed against your driving record.)
- Radial tires and bias-ply tires cannot be mixed. All four tires must be the same (radial or bias-ply).
- Two snow tires and two regular tires can be combined, but snow tires must be on drive wheels. Two snow tires and two regular tires may be used only if they are of the same type.
If you are stationed in Japan, be mindful the country does not use road salt or do a lot of snowplowing during the winter. Therefore, snow tires or chains are imperative for winter driving. In metro Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka, you may get away with not needing snow tires. However, it is still highly recommended to keep a set of chains in the trunk, especially if you’re likely to be driving to ski resorts or if your neck of the woods is prone to freak snowstorms. If you plan to ship or purchase a vehicle while stationed in Korea, check with your sponsor or gaining unit to determine if winter tires or snow chains are required. Ready yourself
Time management is the key to winter driving. You should drive slowly because it is harder to control or stop your vehicle on a slick or snow-covered road. Increase your following distance enough so you'll have plenty of time to stop for vehicles ahead of you. Also, remember that every vehicle handles differently; this is particularly true when driving on wet, icy or snowy roads. Take the time to learn how your vehicle handles under winter weather driving conditions. In addition, know the weather and traffic conditions before you head out, and plan your route accordingly. Make sure to give yourself more time to get where you’re going because you’ll be driving more slowly. Ready for an emergency
Even if you and your vehicle are prepared for winter weather conditions, crashes still do happen. Vehicles can also break down, stranding you in the elements without help nearby. Make sure your vehicle is stocked to help get you out of trouble or keep you safe until help arrives. Carry blankets, flashlights, jumper cables, and flares or emergency lights in your vehicle. A small bag of non-perishable snacks and water isn’t a bad idea either. Even if you don’t need them, they can be used to help someone else in trouble on the road. A set of snow chains is also a nice item to have. You never know when they might be needed for extra traction. Conclusion
Whether you’re on or off duty, keep in mind how dangerous operating a vehicle in adverse weather conditions can be. Take the time to prepare yourself and your vehicle before any work-related or personal trip. Factor in extra time for the trip and carry extra winter-related items in case the worst happens. Leaders should also ensure drivers are trained in operating their assigned or personal vehicles in snowy and icy conditions. You may not start your trip in bad weather, but conditions can change rapidly. Be prepared.
Did You Know?
- 70% of U.S. roads and 70% of the population are in snowy regions and account for 70% of fatal mishaps during winter months.
- 1,300 people are killed and 116,800 are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy or icy roads every year.
The following accidents from the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s mishap database indicate just how dangerous operating a vehicle in less-than-optimal weather conditions can be.
- A Soldier was driving home in blowing snowy weather conditions when his vehicle slid on the slippery roadway and collided with an oncoming vehicle. The Soldier was transported to a hospital and pronounced dead.
- A Soldier was driving too fast for the icy roads when his vehicle left the roadway and overturned several times. The Soldier riding as a passenger was ejected and suffered fatal injuries. Neither Soldier was wearing a seat belt.
- A Soldier was riding in a vehicle that lost traction on wet/icy roads and slid sideways into oncoming traffic. An SUV struck the vehicle on the passenger side, resulting in the Soldier’s fatal injuries.
As the mishap reports above show, operating your vehicle during winter requires special care; but safe driving is a year-round habit. First and foremost, you and every passenger in your vehicle should be wearing seat belts for every ride. Children must be in age- and size-appropriate child seats. Never drive after drinking or when distracted by an electronic device or anything else that takes your attention off the road. These reminders are the essentials for safe driving, whatever the weather.
The American Automobile Association recommends the following tips while driving in snowy and icy conditions:
Tips for driving in the snow
- Keep a bundle of cold-weather gear in your vehicle, such as extra food and water, warm clothing, a flashlight, a glass scraper, blankets, medications and more.
- Make certain your tires are properly inflated and have plenty of tread.
- Keep at least half a tank of fuel in your vehicle at all times.
- Never warm up a vehicle in an enclosed area, such as a garage.
- Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface, such as ice and snow.
Tips for long-distance winter trips
- Stay home. Only go out if necessary. Even if you can drive well in bad weather, it’s better to avoid taking unnecessary risks by venturing out.
- Drive slowly. Always adjust your speed down to account for lower traction when driving on snow or ice.
- Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Apply the gas slowly to regain traction and avoid skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry and take time to slow down for a stoplight. Remember, it takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
- Increase your following distance from five to six seconds. This increased margin of safety will provide the longer distance needed if you have to stop.
- Know your brakes. Whether you have antilock brakes or not, keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
- Don’t stop if you can avoid it. There’s 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. If you can safely slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
- Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads will just make your wheels spin. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed downhill slowly.
- Don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.
- Be prepared. Have your vehicle checked by an approved auto repair facility or conduct your own preventive maintenance checks and services using your owner’s manual as a reference before hitting the road.
- Check the weather. Check the weather along your route and, when possible, delay your trip if bad weather is expected.
- Stay connected. Before hitting the road, notify others and let them know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
- If you get stuck in the snow:
- Stay with your vehicle. Your vehicle provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Do not try to walk in a severe storm. It is easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.
- Don’t overexert yourself. When digging out your vehicle, listen to your body and stop if you become tired.
- Be visible. Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna of your vehicle or place a cloth at the top of a rolled-up window to signal distress. At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
- Clear the exhaust pipe. Make sure the exhaust pipe is not clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust pipe can cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the vehicle’s passenger compartment while the engine is running.
- Stay warm. Use whatever is available to insulate your body from the cold. This could include floor mats, newspapers or paper maps. Pre-pack blankets and heavy clothing to use in case of an emergency.
- Conserve fuel. If possible, only run the engine and heater long enough to remove the chill. This will help to conserve fuel.
As the old saying goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” These simple tips could prevent you from becoming a statistic in the USACRC’s mishap case files. Stay safe out there this winter!