This morning, Austin Texas had freezing rain. There were 90 car crashes within an hour or so. Texans just have no idea how to drive in bad weather.
I’ve driven in Minnesota, in winter, in the middle of a blizzard — and lived. I’ve driven in ice storms on black ice. Frankly, the situation in Austin today would be no big deal, if it wasn’t for the sheer incompetence of so many Texas drivers.
So, I thought I’d write up what I’ve learned about driving in bad weather, for the benefit of anyone I know in Austin who has to drive and doesn’t know this stuff. These things ought to be covered in driver education, but they really aren’t in the US, you’re just left to learn them yourself from random sources. Today, I am that random source.
Or if you need that in clickbait: These ten simple tricks for bad weather driving can reduce your chances of ending up in a wreck!
Trick 0: Don’t drive.
Look, unless you really have to get somewhere, stay indoors. OK, I won’t count that as one of the ten, because it’s cheating. So if you absolutely must drive…
Trick 1: Don’t drive an SUV or pickup.
SUVs have much longer stopping distances, and because they’re heavy they have a lot of momentum, meaning they’re more likely to spin out of turns, and maybe roll over. That’s why according to NHTSA statistics, they more dangerous than cars when it comes to the kinds of accidents caused by bad weather. This is particularly true for older SUVs. I’ve driven an SUV in Minnesota, and I’d take a car every time.
Trick 2: Turn your damn lights on.
You don’t get any bonus points for saving 12V battery power. Even if you did, having the lights on while driving doesn’t drain the battery, so many new cars run the lights all the time. Even in broad daylight, that little bit of extra visibility could be the difference that prevents someone driving into the back of you.
And if you need windshield wipers, you definitely need your lights on.
Trick 3: Drive well below the speed limit.
Usually in Texas, if it says 70 mph, that’s the speed everyone will be expecting you to be going at in the right hand lane. If you try to go any slower, you’ll get someone in a German car tailgating you angrily.
When it’s snowy or icy, the posted speed limit is no longer safe. Drive at a safe speed, which might be as low as 8-10mph if there’s freezing rain and black ice. Yes, 10mph on the freeway might be the safe speed. 40 mph can lead to a rollover. I’ve seen people barrel past me angrily in the left lane, and then seen their rolled-over SUVs a few miles later. Don’t be that guy.
There’s an old saying that applies to many situations in life, including bad weather driving: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
Trick 4: Leave adequate stopping distance.
Leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead. Every time some idiot changes lane into your stopping space, drop back until you are a safe distance from him. You know how to estimate stopping distance, right?
Also, try out your brakes a bit before you need them, and see how slowly they decelerate you before you start sliding. Extrapolate from that knowledge.
Trick 5: Think and look ahead to avoid the need for any kind of sudden maneuver.
Things like sudden turns and sudden deceleration are going to be impossible for you, especially if there’s ice, so make sure you don’t need to do them. Brake slowly, turn widely. Be in the correct lane way in advance.
Obviously this is much easier if you are familiar with the route or have a GPS, but even if you’re somewhere unfamiliar, do your best.
Trick 6: Signal what you’re going to do well in advance.
Remember that you are surrounded by Texas drivers who haven’t left enough stopping distance and are going too fast to steer safely. If you want to do anything — turn, slow down, change lanes, anything other than go in a straight line at constant speed — then you need to give your fellow drivers as much warning as possible.
Trick 7: Find a truck.
A trick I have used on highways is to find an 18 wheeler going your way, and follow it at a safe distance. This has a number of advantages:
The truck driver is almost certainly a lot more experienced than you. He’s likely driven across the country in all kinds of weather, and he knows what a safe speed is for the current conditions.
He can see further than you because he’s higher up, so if there’s something bad ahead, he’ll probably see it sooner than you would be able to.
If anything bad does happen he’ll hit it first. And probably plough straight through it.
If he brakes, you’ll be able to brake a little faster than him.
So all you need to do is follow behind the truck at a safe distance. I’ll say that a third time: at a safe distance.
The absolute minimum safe distance to follow behind a truck is at least far enough back that you can see his side (wing) mirrors. That’s the rule of thumb to ensure that he has a chance of seeing you. Then add however much additional distance you need to be able to stop gracefully without ploughing into the back of his truck, because it’ll hurt you a hell of a lot more than it hurts him.
Trick 8: If you must overtake, leave plenty of space.
The best thing is not to overtake. The trucks will probably be the slowest things on the road, and you’re following their lead, right? But if you absolutely must overtake someone, leave plenty of distance before changing lane back in front of them.
There’s a fairly simple rule of thumb for this one too: when you can see both of the other vehicle’s headlights in your rear view mirror, you’re probably safe to start pulling in ahead of him.
Trick 9: Learn how to deal with skids.
If you’re turning and start to skid, you need to:
- Stop accelerating.
- Stop braking. (This is the bit people forget.)
- Adjust the steering slightly in the opposite direction from the way you were turning, i.e. in the direction the car is skidding.
For example, you’re turning right and the car starts sliding left so you won’t make it? Don’t brake. Lift your foot and turn the wheel left a little until the tires start to grip again. Once you’re no longer sliding, then you can try steering the way you want to go again.
Advanced driving courses can teach you how to do this until it becomes an automatic reflex. I’ve been known to try a few low speed practice skids in an icy empty parking lot, but I’m not suggesting that as a good idea, particularly not in an SUV. If you roll it, it’s your problem.
Trick 10: Remember that video games are not real.
Statistically, people who play driving video games tend to be worse drivers. Those high speed turns you make while evading cops in Grand Theft Auto will not translate into real life.
For a taste of this, try playing Gran Turismo, which is one of the most realistic driving games. You’ll find that compared to other games, the cars maneuver like bricks. And remember, the cars in that game are based on highly tuned performance racing machines, not your crappy Corolla.