Winter driving for dummies

This has been a difficult snow season to get underway, hasn’t it?  So far, we’ve seen a few good storms hit the Cascades, but mostly it’s been lots of cold, dry conditions.  Although most skiers and boarders like to think they can have powder to rip by Thanksgiving, the historical truth is that most Northwest resorts don’t really get going until around mid December or so.  So I try to stay optimistic that more plentiful snow is in our mountain future.

That’s not to say there is no skiing available.  Both Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain are open daily, though lift operations have been reduced until more terrain can be opened.  Early reports I’ve seen have indicated that the snow quality is excellent, even if coverage down low is a little sparse.

As I’m sure many of you have holiday plans that include some mountain driving, I thought this might be a good time to remind everyone of some good pointers to keep us all a little safer.  Though I got a lot of this information from some sources at Whistler, the advice should be good everywhere.

“Most of the problems we have in this area come from vehicles not properly equipped with the right tires,” says Whistler RCMP Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair. “People driving the Sea to Sky Highway are required, at the very minimum, to have all-season tires that are mud and snow rated with 3.5mm of tread depth. We really recommend vehicles use four true winter tires with the mountain snowflake symbol on them.”

Some other ideas:

1. Tires and four wheel drive

As stated above, if your car doesn’t have good winter tires you’re basically a liability to yourself and everyone else on the road. Four-wheel drive is a great feature, but without proper rubber that just means you’ll have four tires spinning instead of two. Also, sour wheel drive vehicles do not stop or steer better on ice.

2. Safe following distance

This is one you might not even think about until it is too late, but it takes a vehicle a lot longer to stop on snowy, icy roads. Allow at least four seconds of time and space between your vehicle and the one in front of you.  It is suggested to use your headlights day and night.

3. Slow down

This is another no-brainer. For sure, you’re excited to get to your destination but speed and slick roads do not mix. There are speed limit signs all over the place —  pay attention and err on the side of caution.   Slow down when approaching intersections, off-ramps, bridges, or shady spots.  Drive for the conditions; slower speed, slower acceleration, and avoid using cruise control.

4. Passing lanes

When the highway has two lanes going the same direction, the right lane should be for regular driving and the left one for passing. Don’t just sit out there in the left lane unless you are overtaking another vehicle. This rule is important because driving in the incorrect lane irritates other drivers and leads to unsafe actions like passing on the inside or following too closely.

5. Know what to expect

Check the WSDOT website for current road conditions; if it looks dicey, consider crossing the mountain passes in daylight, or delay your departure.

6. Avoid sudden moves

Sudden braking or accelerating can cause skids and slides, as can sudden swerves. There is a Zen to good winter driving and it all hinges on great situational awareness and intelligent foresight. Basically you need to be a road ninja who can foresee problems before they arise and take action before it’s too late.

7. Snowplows are enormous

Snowplows make the roads safer but they are also giant beasts of metal with huge blades on the front. Try not to get too close to them and never pass a snowplow on the right hand side because that is the direction the snow is pushed. If you can read the giant sign that says “Don’t Follow Too Closely,” that means you’re probably following too closely.


We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates