You’re coming around a corner on a country road when you suddenly hit a sheet of black ice. As your car starts sliding sideways, your mind flashes back to all those rules you’ve heard about how to control skidding.
Trying to think your way through a situation like this doesn’t work. Instead, you have to learn ahead of time how to react. Then, when the time comes, you react without thinking.
Being mentally prepared, knowing your car and making a plan can keep you moving even when the weather has everyone else stalled. Here are seven tips to keep you out of danger.
1. Leave plenty of stopping distance
If traffic unexpectedly comes to a halt and you have to brake suddenly, do you have enough room to stop without hitting the car in front of you? When the snow flies, this should be your primary concern. Different road surfaces — snow, black ice or hard-packed sanded snow — will give you different stopping distances based on your speed. Motorwise.com says that in the snow it will take 10 times the usual distance to stop. That means slowing down and increasing the number of car lengths between you and the vehicle in front.
2. Don’t spin your wheels
In the frozen north, winter often brings the ugly sound of tires spinning on ice and snow. This is the worst way to gain traction. Spinning your tires melts the snow and makes the surface even more slippery. Instead, back off of the accelerator and give it just enough gas to make the car move forward. If the car still won’t budge, put sand or cardboard under the tires.
In most modern cars, the traction control feature cuts power to the drive wheels when they begin to lose traction and spin. Don’t turn this feature off or try to override it; it’s there to help you drive more safely.
3. Know your car’s drive type
Is your car front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive? Each of these drive types will handle differently. Unless you own a performance car, which is usually rear-wheel drive, your car is probably front-wheel drive. That’s good news for you. In front-wheel-drive cars, the weight of the engine is directly over the driving wheels, giving you better traction. And there’s less chance of spinning out — going into a 360-degree rotation — than with a rear-wheel-drive car.
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are vastly better for driving in the snow. Most all-wheel-drive cars automatically put power to all four wheels when the tires begin to lose traction. Four-wheel drive is usually activated by a switch or lever on the dashboard.
If you are unsure what drive type you own, check the specs by entering your vehicle’s information on Edmunds.com’s car appraisal tool.
4. Understand ABS and stability control features
You’re driving along when red brake lights flare in front of you. You mash the brake pedal, and suddenly your car feels like it’s vibrating. Nothing is wrong with your car. It’s the anti-lock braking system, which allows you to continue to steer even though you’re braking as quickly as possible. If your car has ABS, you no longer need to pump the brakes, as was recommended in the past. The ABS does this for you and does it faster than you could.
Stability control, federally mandated in all vehicles in 2013, works with the ABS to keep the car traveling in the direction you have turned the steering wheel. This computerized system automatically detects when the wheels are losing traction and adjusts by braking the individual wheels to keep you going in the right direction. Cars keep getting safer, so it’s a good idea to read up and learn about your car’s safety features.
5. Check your tread
Your tires are crucial for proper traction and being able to stop in snow and ice. Tires come in three main types: summer, all-season and winter. Edmunds.com’s testing found an enormous difference in stopping distances among these three types of tires — in some cases as much as two car lengths.
If your tread is worn — less than 2/32 inch, or not past the top of Lincoln’s head when you insert a penny upside down — don’t delay buying new tires. Read reviews from other cold-weather drivers to help you find the tires that are right for you.
6. Be prepared for emergencies
Despite your best planning, there are times when you might just get stuck, or even have an accident. Buy or assemble an emergency kit that includes at least a flashlight, flares, food and water and a blanket. Keep the kit in a bag in the trunk of your car.
It’s also important to make sure you have the right car insurance to cover potential problems.
“Collision coverage is an essential purchase for winter driving,” says Amy Danise, insurance expert at NerdWallet. “For example, if you slide on ice and hit a fence, you need collision coverage if you want insurance to pay for your car repairs.”
7. Practice safely
There’s no way to know what it feels like to be in a sliding car without experiencing it for yourself. Consider going to a driving school where experienced instructors teach emergency braking and skid-control exercises. Or, if it has snowed recently, find an empty parking lot with plenty of room in all directions. Practice braking and turning on a slippery surface to see how your car responds. Also, take note of how ABS and stability control are helping your car handle better. Then, under real-world conditions, you’ll be better prepared to react automatically in a split second.
Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.