Whether you’re a new or veteran driver, knowing how to drive on ice is a specialized skill. And in many cases, being able to manage a vehicle in icy conditions could even save your life. Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about driving on ice.
Driving on ice involves a few crucial pieces of advice, the first being: avoid driving on ice if possible! But if you do encounter icy conditions, follow these essential tips:
- Use steering to correct a slide
- Slow down (even when accelerating)
- Leave extra room between vehicles
- Never slam on the brakes
- Don’t jerk the steering wheel
- Take proper care of your tires
- Don’t use cruise control
- Avoid hills
- Know your vehicle
Of course, there’s more to driving on ice than a few bullet points. Fortunately, we have all the details—and safety tips—you need to be a safer driver this winter.
What Do You Do If Your Car Is Sliding on Ice?
Every expert’s first piece of advice to get out of sliding on ice is to not drive on icy roads in the first place. Of course, depending on where you live, this isn’t always a possibility. In general, black ice forms on the road in the early morning and late evening, so driving in daylight can be the safest option.
If you must drive in icy conditions, trying to relax can go a long way toward staying safe. But if your car begins to slide on the ice, there are steps you can take to avoid disaster.
Step One: Decelerate
First, take your foot off the accelerator. After all, adding speed or torque probably won’t help you avoid crashing.
Step Two: Steer
Strategic steering can be the most effective solution to a sliding scenario. Most sources suggest keeping your steering wheel straight (unless you've headed off an embankment or into a ditch via your current path).
Of course, if your car is sliding sideways, evasive maneuvers are necessary.
Depending on which part of the vehicle is skidding (which also depends on your drivetrain), you’ll want to steer accordingly. For example, if the front end is sliding, steer in the opposite direction to correct. If the rear end is sliding, steer in the same direction that the rear is moving.
Step Three: Downshift
If possible, shift into a lower gear. While this is simple for manual transmissions, even automatic transmissions have lower gear settings. Know them and become familiar with them before you require such maneuvers.
Step Four: Apply the Brakes
Apply the brakes carefully and slowly so that you don’t lock your wheels. If you have ABS brakes, when you apply the pedal, the system will “pump” the brakes to slow you down. If you don’t have ABS, you need to pump the brakes for maximum traction.
Step Five: Steer for Ideal Obstacles
If you cannot avoid sliding off the road, aim for the most desirable obstacle. In short, avoid hitting telephone poles, other cars, guardrails, and trees. Try to steer toward a relatively forgiving snowdrift or empty area instead.
What Happens When a Car Slides on Ice?
While every driving scenario is different, ice presents traction and control issues. See the below YouTube video for a visual of what sliding looks like, plus tips on how to avoid having the same happen to you.
How Do You Drive on Black Ice?
Driving on black ice requires special driving techniques plus a working knowledge of your vehicle’s systems.
Drive with Caution, Giving Other Drivers Space
While you should normally give other drivers some space (most states suggest a three- to four-second ‘gap’ when following another vehicle), icy conditions require more caution. Follow the vehicle ahead of you by a minimum of six seconds—preferably more.
This way, you can avoid sliding into them if they brake suddenly. An ample gap also ensures you have room to correct if you begin to slide.
Steer Smoothly, Without Jerking the Wheel
Jerking the steering wheel to correct when you’re sliding is probably the worst thing you can do. In all icy scenarios, you should steer smoothly and avoid quick movements. If you move the wheel too fast, your wheels could lose grip, making your car swing around.
Especially when your adrenaline is pumping, it’s tough to remember to steer carefully. But overcorrecting is often the cause of accidents, so you should always try to apply corrections slowly and thoughtfully.
Accelerate and Decelerate Slowly
Whether you’re accelerating or stopping, you want to do so smoothly on icy roadways. If you stomp on the brakes—or apply the gas in a hurry—you could lose traction as your tires begin to turn. Before you know it, you’ll be spinning off the road and into a ditch.
Use gentle pressure on the gas pedal to reach desired speeds—but don’t go too fast.
Slow Down to Avoid Spinning Out on Ice
When it’s icy (or snowy or severely rainy), you can’t rely on posted speed limit signs. You need to drive based on conditions, not the highway limit, and could even get a ticket if law enforcement spots you speeding.
When Driving on Ice, Know Your Drivetrain
Understanding how your car’s wheels operate is vital for managing it on icy roads. The primary factor that affects how your vehicle performs in tough conditions is the drivetrain.
Vehicles with rear-wheel drive tend to perform worst on winter roads since a lightweight rear end controls your forward momentum. Adding rear weight to your car can help—as can outfitting it with weather-appropriate tires—but most RWD cars are better left in the garage over the winter.
Cars with front-wheel drive are ideal for most driving situations because the weight is over the front wheels. FWD cars still need winter tires, however.
If you have an all-wheel-drive, you might think you’re set for winter. But while AWD vehicles can get you moving effectively, they’re not ideal in braking and steering scenarios. Ice can still stop you up, though winter tires can help a bit more.
In a four-wheel drive, you have a heavier-duty setup that lends itself to rough conditions. Using a four-wheel drive is excellent for traction in snow, but it won’t necessarily help with braking or cornering. You can even damage your vehicle if you keep it in 4WD while on relatively clear roadways.
Skip Cruise Control for the Best Results
You shouldn’t use cruise control in icy conditions, experts say, because it could cause you to lose steering control. After all, the car doesn’t adapt to different road conditions—it only maintains a steady speed. And on ice, steady speeds can mean spinouts.
Don’t Drive on Hills (or Stop on Them)
When traversing roads during cold weather, it’s best to avoid hills. It’s much easier to lose traction on steep roads than on flat ones, so avoid drastic changes in elevation on your route. Try not to stop on hills either, since that can result in a loss of traction either as you brake or accelerate.
Take Care of Your Tires
Ensuring that your tires are ready for winter conditions is vital to avoid ice accidents. You need to maintain proper air pressure, check for leaks, and adjust based on outside temperatures and pressure conditions.
Of course, the type of tires you have also matters when navigating icy roads.
Do Studded Tires Help on Black Ice?
Snow or winter tires are better than standard or all-weather tires for driving in ice, and many drivers rely on them in winter. Standard tires don’t have the depth or grip to keep you centered.
But do studded tires help on black ice? The general consensus is that studded tires are preferable if you drive on ice more than snow. However, you will want to swap back when the weather warms up, as studded tires can develop uneven wear on asphalt.
Are Chains Good for Ice?
Tire chains—or cables—are also helpful for driving on ice. Most of the time, chain controls on major highways and roads dictate when you need to use such traction devices. When it comes to ice, however, it’s difficult to tell whether chains are necessary.
You don’t want to drive on bare roads with chains because they can damage your tires (and the pavement). But you also don’t want to put on and remove chains multiple times per trip to avoid spinning out.
Therefore, unless you’re driving on thoroughly icy roads—such as ones with a thin layer of snow that melts and refreezes throughout the day (or night)—chains might be too much of a hassle. Of course, you should always follow posted warnings for chain control—so keeping chains on hand is a smart idea no matter the road conditions.
Looking for a handy set of chains to keep in your vehicle? Click here to see MustBee’s Tire Chains Kit at Amazon.
What is Better, Tire Chains or Cables?
Traditional metal chains are the standby for snow and ice, but cables are a similar option. The most significant difference is in how each type of traction support functions over time. Since chains are metal, they tend to last longer and continue to provide the best traction.
Cables, however, tend to break down faster, especially with heavy use. At the same time, cables can be easier to install and handle—they usually have built-in tensioners to help with adjustments.
If you want to have a set of cables on hand for emergencies, they can prove affordable and handy. Note that many manufacturers list their chain cables as chains—so look at the construction to determine whether you’re looking at chains versus cables.
Click here to see Security Chain Company Traction Chains at Amazon (these are a cable option).
The type of equipment you choose for driving in icy conditions is often less important than how you use said equipment. By using safe driving practices, you can avoid many dangerous situations and continue to your destination without roadside trouble.