Winter travel has come a long way since the days of the Donner Party. Eating your ski buddies is still frowned upon, so a few precautions are in order. Preparation and on-road proficiency combine for safe travel.
MAINTENANCE BEFORE HITTING THE MOUNTAINS
Before driving into the mountains in the winter, a trip to your local car mechanic is a good idea. AAA recommends that a technician check the battery and charging system, battery cables and terminals, drive belts, the various engine and brake fluid levels, and engine hoses. Even the least mechanically inclined car owner can make sure the headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals, emergency flashers and back-up lights are all working.
Washer fluid level is another easy one to check. A cleaning solution with components to prevent it from freezing will generally have a minimum temperature rating on the packaging. In a snowstorm, worn-out standard wiper blades are the worst; special winter wiper blades are the best.
PROPER TIRE PRESSURE
Tires are literally the four connections to a slick mountain pass road, so they are obviously crucial. Considering tire pressure drops by about 1 PSI for every drop of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, proper tire inflation can be a moving target when going from warm weather into ski country. Although most tire sidewalls indicate a pressure range, pay attention instead to the number recommendation in the owner’s manual or on a sticker typically in the driver-side doorjamb. For tire traction, worn-out, summer or all-season tires are the worst; true winter tires (with a mountain and snowflake symbol) are the best.
REMOVING SNOW FROM YOUR VEHICLE
Snow accumulation on your parked car can add one last step before hitting the road. “You want to see and be seen,” said Bill Van Tassel, manager of driver training operation for AAA. “To see, that means you’ve got to have all your glass cleared. You want to make sure you clear your windshield—the whole thing and not just the area the wipers spray—side mirrors, side windows, rear glass. Also, make sure headlights and other lights are not covered with snow.”
SEEING AND BEING SEEN
Skiers and riders should already have another tool in the car for better driving vision. Flat-light goggles work just as well in a snowstorm on the road as they do on the slopes. Sure, wearing them in the car may look a little goofy, but the enhanced vision and safety is well worth a little teasing.
To “be seen,” turn on your headlights and the rear running lights will come on also. “One trick is that when you’re about ready to start slowing down, you might tap the brakes a couple of times before you actually use the brakes to slow down,” Van Tassel said. “It can help alert any driver behind you that something is going on and you are about to slow down. The human eye is attracted to movement. When you are tapping those brakes, maybe two or three times and they’re flashing on and off, hopefully that’ll get the attention of the driver behind you.”
STEERING AND BREAKING IN SNOW
Skiers can draw a couple of parallels with proper driving technique in the snow. Just as quick jerky ski turns in deep powder can result in a face plant, quick driving movements on a slick road can end in trouble.
“You want to be smooth with your inputs on the pedals and the steering wheel, because the slower you turn those tires or apply the brakes, the less risk there is of the car jerking around and the tires losing traction on the surface,” Van Tassel said.
Another comparison could be made between skiing and driving in terms of where to focus your vision. “It’s just like skiing. It doesn’t do any good to look at where you are,” said Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “You need to look ahead so you can identify problems before you become involved.”
Cox teaches winter-driving techniques at a 77-acre facility in the shadow of the ski runs at Steamboat. “Even people who grew up in the Snow Belt come out of here and say, ‘Wow, I thought I knew how to drive in ice and snow and I really had no clue. I’ve just been lucky,’” Cox said. “At the same time, you gain confidence and competence by being able to practice the worst-case scenario again and again until it becomes reflex rather than trying to practice what you’ve read in a book.”