Stuck in the snow? How to get your car out

What will get your car to go in the ice and snow.

POTENTIAL EMERGENCY:You’re driving your troop to a weekend ski trip in Vermont when your SUV starts to lose traction.

UNLESS YOU LIVE IN PHOENIX or your last name is Claus and you’re piloting a sleigh, chances are good that winter weather will test your driving skills at some point this season. And it’s one of those tests in which failure can be expensive—and dangerous.

When it comes to driving in snowy and icy conditions, have a mental (or a paper) checklist of things to do before you get on the road. First, make sure your mobile phone is charged. Completely. (I won’t bother telling you to use it only in an emergency, O.K.?)

Second, make sure you have blankets and water, in case you’re stranded. Third, make sure your headlights, brake lights, washer fluid, and wipers work, and that you have an ice scraper. Fourth, make sure you have a shovel for when you get stuck. Dig out the wheels as much as you can and check to see that the chassis won’t get hung up on a pile of snow when you pull out. And finally, make sure the tailpipe and lights are clear.

Now it’s time to get moving. The key to gaining momentum from a standstill on slippery surfaces is slow and steady application of the throttle. When you apply too much torque too quickly, the wheels can’t grab and will spin freely—and, no, spinning them really fast won’t create enough friction to melt the snow.

Front-wheel drive cars typically start moving more easily because the weight of the engine is over the drive wheels, creating some added friction. Rear-wheel drive cars are another story (see sidebar). If the wheels spin, reverse and move back until the rubber meets the pavement.

Once moving, keep moving. Try to time traffic signals so that you don’t have to make complete stops. But if the light’s red, stop. As a rule of thumb, allow three times the amount of stopping space you would in clear weather. Brake gently, but ease off the brake if the car begins to skid. Equally important: Don’t assume the other driver will stop. Driving sense runs in inverse proportion to the amount of snow on the ground.

Now that you’re moving (well, creeping), you need to plan for skids. If your front wheels lose traction, take your foot off the gas. But don’t try to steer immediately. As the wheels skid sideways, the car should slow and regain traction. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go and accelerate gently. If the rear wheels lose traction, take your foot off the gas. Then, if the rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right. As you recover, the rear could start sliding the other way. Gently turn the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to do this a few times. Do not pump antilock brakes; just gently depress the pedal.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about winter driving is that the effects of your actions are greatly magnified. So gently perform acceleration, braking, and steering. And remember: In winter driving, quick action and low traction don’t mix.

For Cars With Rear-Wheel Drive

Perhaps your father’s Oldsmobile had a few 50-pound bags of sand or cement in the trunk to add weight and improve traction. This trick might work to get you started, but once you’re moving it can adversely affect handling—especially turning—and make the car unpredictable. If you’ve got a rear-wheel drive car, invest in some snow tires or chains. Or cross-country ski to the office.

That said, try this trick: Modern cars now have traction (also called stability) control that directs power to the wheel with the most grip. This works pretty well when you’re moving and, say, one wheel begins to hydroplane. However, from a standstill, traction control can hinder takeoff. The car’s computer will apply the brake to one spinning wheel, torque will transfer to the other wheel (which is also spinning), the brake will be applied to that wheel also, and you’ll have two spinning wheels with the rear brakes applied.

See the problem? Try deactivating the traction control (press the button on the dash) and applying the throttle (even if the wheels spin a bit) to get moving. Turn it back on as soon as you’re on the road, unless you’re using snow chains.

Slick Tips

  • Four-wheel drive, though helpful when starting from a standstill, has limited benefit once under way—and none when braking.
  • To get moving, try dumping sand, gravel, or kitty litter around the drive wheels for some added traction. You’ll need plenty.
  • To enhance winter-driving skills, take your car to an empty, snow-covered parking lot and have some fun: Drive around for a while to get a sense of how it handles, how to steer properly when the wheels lose grip, and how much pressure to apply to the brake and throttle. Watch out for light poles.
  • Tire pressure is affected by the ambient air temperature. Typically, you’ll lose (or gain) one pound per square inch (PSI) with each 10-degree-Fahrenheit fall (or rise) in temperature. Check your tire pressure regularly.

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site atjoshpiven.net.

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