Of the 6.3 million auto accidents that occur on U.S. roads every year are caused by adverse weather conditions like rain, sleet, snow and fog. Unfortunately, as global temperatures continue to rise, harsh and unpredictable weather conditions like these are becoming more common on our motorways.
And if the record-breaking rains that washed out entire interstates and thoroughfares in Colorado last week are any indication, this year’s winter could be particularly troublesome. That means it’s a good idea for all drivers — even the most experienced winter drivers — to take time each year to prepare themselves, their vehicles and their insurance policies for the potentially dangerous road conditions that lie ahead.
A combination of proper equipment, driving techniques and choices in car insurance can minimize the likelihood of severe injuries as a result of crashes, and can take the pressure off your wallet if an accident does happen.
The Safe Winter Driving Checklist
There are several techniques you can learn in order to become a more controlled winter driver — but before we cover them, it’s important to point out that many winter driving tips are guidelines, not tenets. In order to best know how react to a swerve, it’s crucial to be familiar with your car and how it handles in a spinout. The “right way” to drive on icy or wet roads is partially going to depend on your car’s type of steering system, brake responsiveness, and tire traction.
- Make sure your tires can grip slippery roads. Get your tires checked and ask the specialists about your possible traction needs. Remember that “all-season” tires are really more like “three-season” tires in a areas that get more than the occasional skiff of snow each winter. But you aren’t finished even after you’ve visited your local tire shop. You must check and maintain your tires’ psi levels regularly throughout the winter! Winter debris can cause tears and leaks and extremely cold air can drop your air pressure levels, take a few seconds to check them every week and you’re tires will keep you safer and last longer.
- Give yourself a winter test drive. Before you hit the roads, make sure you understand how your car handles in certain conditions. During the first storm of the season, drive to a safe open space nearby to try out your brakes, traction and steering on icy, wet or snow-packed pavement. Not only will you have some fun sliding around, but you’ll learn how to recognize when you’re car is sliding and how to regain control once it does.
- Know what to expect on your trip and plan accordingly. If you know you need to travel through especially bad wintery conditions, be sure to check for travel advisories on the DOT website first. Visit your state’s DOT website to access information and service alerts about your local weather, road conditions and traffic levels.
- If you start sliding, turn slightly into the skid and pump your breaks. Once you’re already sliding, your tires have lost traction with the road. It seems counterintuitive, but in order to avoid a spinout you need to turn slightly into the skid, slowly let of the gas and start pumping the breaks. Yanking the wheel in the other direction and locking the brakes will stop your tires from turning, but you’ll lose all hope of regaining traction with the road surface.
- Slow down and relax. This is the most important rule to driving in bad conditions of any kind. And we’re not just talking about speed — you want to do everything more slowly and more lightly than you normally would. Hitting your gas pedal, clamping your breaks or cranking your wheel too quickly is a surefire way to lose traction on an icy or wet road.
- Know when to quit. Sometimes road conditions are simply too dangerous to drive in. If you can’t see or you keep losing control, pull over. Never push your luck if you’re unsure. It’s not worth it to drive if you’re jeopardizing yourself, your passengers or other drivers on the road.
The Essentials of an Emergency Road Kit
Even the smartest and safest drivers get into accidents. That’s why it’s crucial to be prepared for the possibility of any kind of collision or accident that could leave you and your passengers stranded on the side of a cold and possibly dangerous road. The first step is to set aside an easily accessible duffel bag or backpack.
Inside, you will want to include common car safety items like jumper cables, a flashlight and a roadside visibility kit of either reflectors or flares. If you are stranded, a small shovel, bag of sand and a set of chains are all must-haves. If you are handy, you’ll also want a set of tools to repair minor damage and some sort of flag or ribbon to notify first responders or other drivers you are stuck. For about $30, you can buy pre-assembled winter road kits from AAA or just assemble your own according to the types of conditions you expect to face and how far you intend to drive this winter. Here’s a full list of supplies you may want to include in your kit:
- Tools: jack, lug wrench, shovel
- Chains or traction tires
- Extra car fluids: oil, washer fluid, antifreeze
- Non-clumping kitty litter, sand or de-icer
- Flares, reflectors and flags
- Road maps
- Extra warm clothes, boots, hat and gloves
- Ice scraper and snow brush
- Cell phone and car adapter
- Rechargeable flashlight
- First aid kit
- Matches or lighter
- Battery jumper cables
- Extra food and water
- Blanket/sleeping bags
- Pocket knife
Winter Car Accidents, Liability and Your Insurance
It’s difficult to predict how fault will be determined in any given accident, but it’s important for policyholders to remember insurance providers aren’t in the business of cutting you more slack just because collisions happen during the winter holiday season. Even if you can’t necessarily prevent sliding on that patch of black ice, you’ll still be held liable for any collisions that result. According to the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, you can be held liable for an accident you cause by sliding into an intersection.
During the holidays, many of us loan our cars to visiting relatives and friends to go shopping, sightseeing or visiting. So, what happens if the driver borrowing our car causes an accident with our car? Actually, insurance follows the car, not the driver. If you’ve got a standard comprehensive and collision insurance policy, it’s your insurance covering the damages. That means it’s your premiums and your risk-rating that is affected by the wreck your cousin causes in your car, regardless of if he has a policy of his own. It’s important to carefully read your policies terms on other drivers and liability before loaning out your car. Of course, the same liability standards do not apply if your car is borrowed without your permission or stolen.
Another misconception among policyholders is that coverage levels cannot change on a month to month basis. This is not true. If you have a vehicle that you don’t drive much in the winter, you can reduce a comprehensive coverage plan on this car for the winter months. In these cases, policyholders can opt to remove liability coverage, personal injury protection and collision coverage from their standard plans.
That said, if you plan on driving your car at all during the winter months, you’ll need to meet your state’s minimum coverage requirements. Be sure to contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles or your insurance agent to be sure that your coverage is adequate for your vehicle and it’s level of use.
Find Your DMV and DOT
Below you can find your local Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation. If you plan on driving during inclement weather or are considering reducing your insurance coverage, it’s in your best interest to consult with one of these departments. Remember: being informed and aware are essential steps for keeping the roads safe for everyone.
District of Columbia
- Kentucky Transportation Cabinet – Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing
- Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
- Maryland Department of Transportation – Motor Vehicle Administration
- Maryland Dept. of Transportation
- Massachusetts Department of Transportation – Registry of Motor Vehicles
- Massachusetts Highway Department
- Minnesota Department of Public Safety – Driver and Vehicle Services Division
- Minnesota Dept. of Transportation
- Missouri Department of Revenue – Motor Vehicle Titling & Registration
- Missouri Dept. of Transportation
- New Hampshire Department of Safety – Division of Motor Vehicles
- New Hampshire Dept. of Transportation
- North Carolina Department of Transportation – Division of Motor Vehicles
- North Carolina Dept. of Transportation
- Pennsylvania Department of Transportation – Driver and Vehicle Services
- Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation
- Rhode Island Department of Revenue ‐ Division of Motor Vehicles
- Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation
- South Dakota Department of Revenue and Regulations – Motor Vehicles Division
- South Dakota Dept. of Transportation
- West Virginia Department of Transportation – Division of Motor Vehicles
- West Virginia Dept. of Transportation
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation ‐ Division of Motor Vehicles
- Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation