Caution is the Key to Safe Winter Mountain Driving

February 26, 2019

How to drive safely in Winter Traveling Conditions

Recent extreme weather events across many of the mountain regions of California have brought into focus the dangers of winter driving in these areas.

Some ski resorts were reporting falls of several feet across a 72 hour period and there were multiple reports of auto accidents and stranded vehicles.

Those who normally take mountain routes to their destinations -- through passes for example -- were being warned to stay away from particularly hazardous areas and some roads were closed for a while when plows were unable to get through.

And we're not just talking about narrow roads either. Major freeways can and do get heavily snow-bound. It's easy to think that because you're on a major highway you're safe. You're not.

California snow can look beautiful in the winter -- provided you don’t have to drive through it. But if a winter mountain journey is on your agenda, whether in our state or elsewhere, you should follow some basic safety rules to protect yourself, your passengers and your vehicle.

Here are some top tips on winter mountain driving compiled from those who work on the frontline of these highway dramas.

  • Check the weather report -- not just for your journey but for the duration of any extended stay. You may be able to get there but will you be able to leave?
  • Weather forecasts can be notoriously unreliable. So, check webcams and weather advisories from police, AAA, state and local authorities. If the advice is not to drive through specific mountain ranges, then don't.
  • Plan out your route carefully before you leave, including mapping alternative roads.
  • Don't trust your GPS. Past experience has shown that some mapping software is not able to safely distinguish between passable and impassable roads. It can direct you onto logging and other trails that aren't suitable for regular autos even at the best of times.
  • Tell friends or neighbors where you are heading and your expected timings and let them know you'll call or text them when your arrive.
  • Prepare your car -- that means a serviced vehicle, a full tank of fuel, de-icing fluid (in your screenwash too) and chains (even if you have 4-wheel drive).
  • Prepare yourself. Take everything you might need in an emergency including extra warm and high-visibility clothing, flashlight, flares, fully charged phone, first aid kit, high-energy food, and water.
  • Take kitty litter or sand, plus a shovel, in case you get stuck. The kitty litter can help your car regain traction.

Safe Driving Tips

Of course, it's not just snow that represents a hazard for winter mountain drivers. Ice is actually a much bigger threat -- not least because you often can’t see it till you hit it.

Almost 140,000 people are injured on icy roads in the US every year. Play it safe by following these rules:

  • Slow down using your gears and try to avoid braking. If your car fishtails, even when you seem to be traveling slowly, you're going too fast. Be especially cautious on all bends.
  • Increase the distance between yourself and the car in front. If you're feeling intimidated by a following car that seems to be too close for comfort, don’t be persuaded to speed up. Instead, look for a safe spot to pull over and let them pass.
  • Make sure you know how to drive out of skid or slide. In very simple terms, you should turn your steering wheel in the direction in which your back wheels are sliding. Here's more information about how to correct a slide:
  • If you're driving downhill, you must yield to vehicles coming uphill.
  • Don't stop for stranded cars on an icy roadway. Private website, advises: "Being a Good Samaritan is a noble thing, but on an icy road, it can cause more problems than it solves. Parking on the side of an icy highway can cause passing drivers to brake and lose control, putting the lives of everyone involved in danger." If you spot trouble, call 911.
  • Don’t power up hills. Stepping on the gas on snow-covered roads will just make your wheels spin. Try to get your momentum before you reach the hill and then let that carry you up.
  • Take frequent rests when you reach level ground during your journey. Winter mountain driving calls for extreme concentration. You can’t afford to lose that.
  • If your vehicle is parked outside overnight -- at a ski resort for example -- clear the windshield and lights before setting out on a journey.
  • Never try to overtake a snow plow unless the driver calls you through -- and double the distance you would normally allow if you're following a gritter.

If You Get Stuck

The added hazard on some mountain roads is that they can be little used during the winter, which means it is easier to get stuck. If you do get stuck, here's what AAA advises:

  • Stay with your car. It's the best shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to reach you.
  • Don’t over-exert yourself trying to dig yourself out.
  • Increase your visibility -- for example by attaching a brightly-colored item to the outside of your car.
  • Clear the exhaust pipe of snow or debris -- and try to keep it clear.
  • Stay warm, using whatever is available as body insulation.
  • Conserve fuel, running the engine and heater only long enough to remove the chill.
  • AAA has a useful downloadable booklet for winter mountain driving -- How to Go on Ice and Snow -- which you can find here:

Insuring Your Safety

Following safe driving and preparation rules will significantly cut your risk of an accident. But it'll do little or nothing to protect you from others who are less wise, and from the sheer force of Mother Nature in winter.

Before you set off, make sure you have the right vehicle insurance for your trip and that you know what to do in the unfortunate event of an accident. 

Here at Aldrich Taylor Insurance, we see claims every year from drivers who were the victim of "outside forces" when negotiating mountain roads.

Call our insurance experts if you need to discuss your insurance coverage -- and know that, if you insured with us, we'll be here to help you if you need to make a claim.