5 Ways to Keep Your Car Out of a Snowbank

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Despite holiday songs' claims to the contrary, dashing through the snow is exactly what most drivers want to avoid as winter weather approaches.

American roads crammed with cars sporting the same all-weather tires they took on summer vacation and filled with folks who expend the same amount of effort cleaning snow off their cars as they do wiping fog off the bathroom mirror after a shower can be treacherous once snow or ice enters the mix. Of the 6.3 million accidents the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says occur on U.S. roads each year, more than 1.5 million are weather related.

In states cold enough to let the flakes fall, snow and sleet account for 225,000 accidents, or 15% of weather-related crashes, each year. Roughly 70,900 people are injured in those crashes, while 870 are killed. Ice causes its fair share of problems on an annual basis, accounting for 190,000 accidents, 62,700 injuries and 680 deaths on American roads each year. Even slush is a lot less pleasant than its convenience-store treat name implies, killing 620 people each year and injuring another 47,700 in 168,300 accidents.

A super-sized SUV or your all-wheel-drive suburban soccer shuttle won't necessarily keep drivers safer, either. While ground clearance is certainly nice when drifts pile up in the driveway, and four-wheel drive comes in handy for pulling your car out of a plowed-in snowpile, they won't stop a car if it's skidding or keep it on the road in tight corners. Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, says winter driving safety has little to do with the Ford ( F), Chevy ( GM), Toyota ( TM), Honda ( HMC) or Nissan ( NSANY) drivers buy and everything to do with how a driver prepares for the season.

With an emphasis on traction, vision and snow-covered street smarts, Cox shared five suggestions for preventing your car from becoming that flipped-over roadside mess that factors into seemingly every local television snow traffic story. Those plows didn't push all that snow to the sides of the road just so you could turn it into an impromptu parking space during rush hour:

1. Put on the snow tires
What can make a Hyundai Sonata handle a snow-covered road as well as a Volvo wagon? A decent set of snow tires.

Unlike their more sensitive sibling, the all-weather tire, snow tires rely a lot more on real rubber and don't stiffen up as much when the weather turns chilly. There's also a lot more tiny tread on the tire surface to take away winter moisture more quickly. The downside is that winter tires can start at $100 a pop, can cost as much as $1,000 to $2,000 once a driver invests in a new set and wheels and require both storage space and some seasonal labor when they're switched out. The upside is that those tires can stop a car up to 50% faster than their all-weather counterparts.

"Generally, the difference between the best all-season tires and the best winter tires is about 30% to 50% in traction," Cox says. "Snow-tire engineering has taken a quantum leap over the last decade, and most people don't realize what's really available out there and how much difference it can make."

If Cox's Bridgestone connection seems a bit of a conflict of interest in this area, consider that Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, Mich., also strongly suggests making the switch to snow tires before the season begins. Not only do they provide more traction and stability, but they're saving both of your sets of tires a lot of wear and tear.

2. Clean off your car ... the whole car
Hey. You. The driver who thinks it's perfectly fine to just brush off the car windows and let the wind finish the job once you're on the road: You're a disgrace.

That snow you're just allowing to blow off the hood? It's going right onto your windshield, gunking up your wipers and making it harder for you to see the road. That veritable igloo on your roof? It just blew straight into the field of vision of the car behind you, which wouldn't be so bad if you'd bothered to clear off the snow off your taillights. You've basically just given the car behind you permission to take off your back bumper and/or ram you into the nearest ditch. But since you clearly lack any sort of sympathy and aren't motivated by the needs of others, perhaps we'll put this in terms that can penetrate that little invisible sphere you consider your world:

"If you don't clear the roof off before you start driving, almost instantly your rearview becomes obscured," Cox says. "If you're unlucky enough to have it warm up just enough during your trip and you stop at a stop light, all that stuff can slide forward and obstruct your vision out of the windshield as well."

At the very least, it'll ruin your view or cause you to stop short and spill that coffee you just spent 15 minutes placing such an intricate order for. At worst, it'll render you snowblind just as you're coming to a well-worn and likely slick intersection where your stopping ability will be similar to that of a sliding penguin. Of course, if you're not cleaning snow off of the fairly obvious areas, chances are you're not clearing out or applying snow-resistant silicone to the wheel wells and are basically oblivious to your lost breaking power. That isn't going to end well.

"When you go on a long trip, especially when it's warm, you can get a lot of snow and slush buildup in the wheel wells, and it typically isn't a problem," Cox says. "If you're out traveling all day and the wheel wells are packed full and you park outside overnight when it's cold, you might find that the next day your brakes or your tires might be frozen to your inner fender and it make take away some of your suspension."

Watch the road
This bit of advice doesn't just cover the black tarmac with the little white lines on it, but everything under and around that roadbed.

On highways, this means looking out for the "phantom shoulder." If a plow has a nice, flat edge that can push snow well off a road and flatten it out along the way, a steep ditch by the roadside can suddenly appear to be a wide shoulder lane.

"In reality, that's just soft snow that your car will sink right into," Cox says. "Some telltale signs for avoiding that are the delineator posts with reflectors or shadows and grass sticking through that smooth area."

If a driver does manage to get snagged in such a snow trap, Cox advises against yanking the wheel back toward the road, which will only create more problems. Instead, a driver who feels the car sinking should hold the wheel gently and steer smoothly back into traffic.

That gentle approach is basically the key to all winter driving. When taking curves, for examples, Cox advises braking before the curve when the car is traveling straight, taking your foot off the brake before steering into the curve and accelerating only when the car straightens out at the end of the turn.

Reading the terrain is similarly important, especially at intersections where ice is smoothed out from various cars braking in the same spot and on hills where drivers spin their tires in the same place with similar results. Bridges also ice over earlier than normal roads and areas shaded by trees, buildings or even billboards get slick quicker than other spots.

"You have to identify the portions of the road that become slippery before everything else," Cox says. "Even if you're in a hilly area and you drive around from the south or west, there are going to be shadows and it's going to be slippery."

Wipers on, lights on
Clearing the headlights, taillights and signal lights is great and all, but not very helpful if you're not turning them on.

During the day, there's a simple rule to follow when you're driving during a snowfall: If your wipers are on, your lights should be too. Fog lights aimed low can improve visibility in nonurban areas where drivers aren't blinding people, but keeping the lights on during a daytime snowstorm is as much about being seen as it is about seeing.

"Any time you turn your wipers on, that mean visibility is less than ideal, so go ahead and turn the lights on," Cox says. "That's not necessarily so you can see, but so others can see you under less-than-ideal light conditions."

When it comes to night driving and near-whiteout conditions, however, there's only one option: the low beams. High beams are just going to bounce right back at you, and while low beams don't fare much better when it comes to improving visibility, they give you and your fellow drivers a fighting chance. When those other drivers make their presence felt in the oncoming lanes, however, Cox recommends focusing on the right side of the roadway to avoid glare and maintain decent night vision.

Wear sunglasses
It seems like an odd strategy in the middle of winter, but any skier or snowboarder can tell you that tinted shades make it a lot easier to see changes in snowy terrain.

It's not advisable to just pick up the first pair of reflective aviators you come across and barrel into a blizzard, or take the Corey Hart approach and wear them for night driving, but sunglasses can have a significant impact when you've spent the past hour of your commute staring into a field of white.

"Generally sunglasses, especially lighter-tinted sunglasses, can allow you to see with a little bit better depth perception in low-light conditions," Cox says. "You can see the subtle shadows and the changes in the road and any little benefit you can get is going to make your decisions better as a driver."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.