Driving in Snow: Seven Tips From An Ol’ Sales Guy

Driving in Snow: Seven Tips From An Ol’ Sales Guy

What a snowy hit we’re taking here in the Alpine region of Europe this week.

As bad as it often gets here, I grew up with worse snow in Upstate New York.  We learned how to drive on roads that were hardly plowed and with tires that weren’t nearly as advanced as they are today.

When I was New York State Sales Manager for a California winery back in the 80’s, I was sometimes forced to drive across the entire State of New York in heavy snow.  I recommend getting a hotel when it gets bad, but I sure learned a lot by grinding on.

A few time-tested skills can make all the difference between getting home a little late or calling a tow truck.

Here are a few tips that I swear by:

  1. Don’t drive if you don’t have to.  Do you really need to go see that client?  Clients usually understand and, very often, they’ll prefer to cancel too.  Do you really need to pick-up that material?  If it can wait, then… let it wait.
  2. Drive slow.  No-brainer, right?  But then, you think, this piece of road is pretty straight, and… Forget it!  There’s nothing more incovenient and time consuming than sliding off the side of the road.  If you think slowing down is silly, then do the math.  In snow, your traction can be 10% of what it is on clean roads.  At half your normal speed, you’re still ice skating.  “Slow down.  Take it EA-sy!”
  3. Drive even slower downhill.  Do the math above.  Now factor in gravity.  Maybe you should be going 10% of your normal speed.  Have you ever gone sledding?  It’s all physics.  Science doesn’t forgive.
  4. Keep your RPM’s low.  Drive in higher gears, even at slower speeds.  This is counter-intuitive, but it’s winter driving’s best kept secret.  “Torque” gets better traction than “rev.”  In other words, your car will handle better, and your wheels will grip the snowy road better, if you go 40 km/hr in fourth gear as opposed to second.   This also applies to pulling out from a dead stop.  Try letting your foot off the clutch while hardly accelerating, and then shifting gently into second gear when you get to 10 km/hr.  Now we’re into mechanics and physics.  Too much for this post, but in the snow, you’ll simply be fighting the laws of science if you get your engine’s RPM’s up to 3,000 before shifting into the next gear.
  5. Don’t spin the wheels if you get stuck.  This is directly related to the low RPM thing above.  And more science.  If you get a bit stuck, the last thing you should do is spin your tires!!!  This will only turn the snowy surface under the tires into glare ice while digging a hole.  Then you’re sunk.  (Literally.)  So the minute your tires start to spin, let off the gas.  Your tires will usually grip with the torque and grind their way out of the snow.  If not, let the car rock back, then give it a little goose of gas again, then let it rock back further, goosing and rocking a little more each time until you can give it just enough gas to grind your way out.  Torque, goose and grind.  Don’t rev, spin and dig holes!
  6. Use your hand brake.  This one has been a lifesaver for me (perhaps literally) on more than one occasion.  Say you’re going slow and you step on the brakes; and in spite of ABS-Braking, you lose your steering.  Most (but not all!) hand brakes apply to the back wheels only.  This allows your front wheels to keep rolling… and steering.    It’s a last resort, but if you’re in trouble, it might be your only resort.
  7. Don’t over-steer.  Over-steering is what gets drivers into the most trouble in snow, after speed, of course.  Let’s say your right tire gets into deeper, unplowed snow.  As an alert driver, you might yank the wheel to the left.  But this could actually send you further into the deeper snow, because your tire is now resisting the snow as opposed to rolling over it.  Over-steering in the open but icy road, on the other hand, could send you into an outright spin.  When you need to correct your steering in deep snow or ice, hold the steering wheel straight and firm, and pull it just slightly, in this case, back to the left.

Perhaps I need a disclaimer here.  Use these tips at your own discretion.  Disclaimer or not, I firmly believe that these seven points can save you a lot of misery while driving in snow.

I’ll be the guy other people are passing.  Chances are, I’ll be a few minutes late.

I hope you’re a few minutes late, too.  It’s better than calling a tow-truck  Slow down.  Take it EA-sy!


Photo by Carlos.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/42177787@N04/4312793881/sizes/z/in/photostream/