- Safe winter driving
- Reading the road
- Driving for work in winter
Winter is Mother Nature’s driving test. Cold temperatures, slippery roads, and reduced visibility challenge even the most experienced drivers. The risks are high whether you drive for work or pleasure. Learn how to keep yourself and your passengers safe.
Safe winter driving
Every year in BC, crashes caused by people driving too fast for the conditions increase significantly during the fall and winter months. Your risk is high no matter where you live. Whether you’re facing snow and ice in northern BC or rain and fog in coastal BC, you can’t always predict how your vehicle or other vehicles will react.
Driving for the conditions means you need to adjust your driving in different weather, road, visibility, and traffic conditions to maintain full control of your vehicle.
A basic rule is to slow down when conditions are less than ideal. Speed limits are set for optimal conditions. So even if you drive at the speed limit, police can ticket you for driving too fast for the conditions if the road is icy, crowded, narrow, or if visibility is poor.
Here are some examples of driving for the conditions:
- Being able to maintain control of the vehicle when the road is slippery from rain or ice.
- Being able to stop or slow enough to avoid hitting a pedestrian or animal that unexpectedly enters your path.
- Leaving more space between your vehicle and the one in front of you when visibility is less than ideal, such as at night, in fog, or during heavy rainfall.
To help keep yourself safe, apply these winter driving safety tips:
If you have to drive, do some trip planning before getting behind the wheel. Visit DriveBC.ca or call its 24/7 automated weather service at 1-800-550-4997 to check current weather and road conditions and select the safest route. The site is updated frequently. It also tells you about changes in speed limits and major road events such as falling ice. Commercial vehicle drivers can check for height clearance and chain-up requirements.
You can also get BC weather warnings from Environment Canada.
Plan your route to avoid roads that may become dangerous during bad weather. Respect road closure signs and barriers. If none of the routes appear safe, delay your trip until conditions improve or find another means of travel.
Do you really need to go?
Before you decide to drive, ask yourself if the trip is really necessary. Sometimes the best decision is to stay off the road. Postpone your plans and avoid driving when road and weather conditions are poor. Can you skip driving and make a phone or video call instead? Can you take the bus, or call a taxi or ride-sharing service?
Give yourself extra time
Winter is no time to be rushing when driving. Weather and road conditions can change quickly, creating delays. Plan for them. Try to travel during daylight. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to arrive.
Attitude is one of the most important factors in safe winter driving. Drivers with a good attitude don’t put themselves in high-risk situations. They also know that no one, including themselves, is a perfect driver.
Crash prevention starts before you get behind the wheel. Like muscle memory, winter driving skills can fade when they’re not used frequently. You probably haven’t driven in snow and icy conditions for months, so review our tips on driving for the conditions to refresh your memory.
When winter does arrive, find a safe area to practice and get familiar again with how your vehicle handles in snow and on ice. If you drive for work, ask your employer for winter driving training.
Wear comfortable clothing
Wear comfortable clothing that won’t restrict your movement while driving. Also bring warm clothing such as winter boots with good tread, a coat, gloves, and a hat with you in case you need to get out of your vehicle during the trip. Take a good pair of sunglasses to reduce glare. And use footwear that is suitable for driving. Big winter boots are not ideal for driving and can be a hazard.
Make sure you have food and other supplies you may need if you get stuck, or if you’re delayed because of the weather or a crash.
You may know how to drive for winter conditions, but what if your vehicle doesn’t respond? A winter-ready vehicle is just as important as good driving skills. For your safety, maintain and winterize it before poor weather arrives. Then follow a routine of pre-driving checks before each trip.
Install winter tires
Winter tires are an investment in safety – for you, your family, and others sharing the road. They provide better traction in cold temperatures and in snow, slush, and icy conditions. They’re also required on most routes in BC from October 1 to March 31.
Use 4 matched winter tires that carry the mountain/snowflake winter tire symbol and with tread no less than 3.5 mm. These are recommended even when driving a 4×4 vehicle. Tires marked with an M+S (Mud and Snow) are also legally acceptable.
Learn more about winter tires and regulations.
Do a maintenance check-up
Preventative maintenance is key. Make sure the following are in great shape:
- Lights, fuses and electrical system
- Cooling and heating systems
- Exhaust system
- Belts and hoses
Change your wiper blades
Install a fresh pair of winter wiper blades each fall. Proper winter blades are heavier and have a protective rubber layer. It allows them to push snow and ice more easily than summer blades can.
Fill your windshield washer reservoir
Carry extra washer fluid in your vehicle too. You may use your wipers a lot more in winter, to clear rain, snow, ice, mud, and sand from your window.
Clear sensors and cameras
If your vehicle is equipped with sensors or a back-up camera, find out where they are and make sure they’re clear of snow, slush or dirt before you go. If you’re driving in slushy conditions you may have to clear them again along the way.
Charge your cell phone and bring a car charger
Take a fully charged cell phone with you, but don’t use it while you’re driving. Keep it in your glove compartment unless it’s needed during an emergency.
Pack an emergency kit
It’s a good idea to have a kit in the vehicle year-round. Use our emergency kit checklist (PDF 140KB) to stock basic items as well as ones you may need during poor weather conditions.
Keep your gas tank topped up
A full tank helps avoid the condensation and moist air that can cause fuel lines to freeze and other serious issues.
Use chains wisely
In extreme conditions, chains can be used on passenger vehicles along with winter tires. Learn how to install them before you need them and test them for performance in winter conditions. Only use chains when there’s a layer of snow or ice on the road. Chains on bare pavement can cause substantial damage to your tires and the road.
For commercial vehicle drivers, review the requirements for chains and other traction devices.
Always slow down and allow more following distance when you’re behind another vehicle. Give yourself at least 4 seconds of space. Vehicles take longer to stop on icy or snowy roads.
It’s also important to leave more space between vehicles in rain and fog. Give yourself more time to react to unexpected situations.
Always drive with your headlight and tail lights on. That way, other road users can see you. And, in winter when generally lower light conditions are made worse by rain, fog, or snow, a clean set of headlights and/or fog lights can help you see what’s ahead. In the city, watch for pedestrians crossing at crosswalks – on the highway, be on the lookout for wildlife crossing the road.
If you have driving glasses, use them to improve your vision and reduce eye fatigue. If you’re driving in bright, sunny conditions, wear sunglasses to reduce glare from wet and icy roads. Also, amber-tinted glasses can improve definition in flat light conditions, and are especially helpful when driving during a heavy snowfall or in fog.
The best way to prepare for an emergency is to do everything you can to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you could get stuck or be stranded.
Check DriveBC and weather forecasts – before the trip and periodically along the way if it’s a long trip. Look at oncoming vehicles. Are they covered in snow and ice? If so, find out why. If you think road conditions ahead are poor, delay your trip until they improve. If you have to proceed, make sure you have a plan that includes reliable communications and a check-in process.
If you get stuck or become stranded, don’t panic. You have an emergency kit. Activate you 4-way flashers and put out your emergency triangles to reduce the risk of someone running into you.
If it’s an emergency, call 911. If you need a tow truck, call the nearest towing company. But if conditions are poor, be prepared to wait a while for someone reach you. Call your check-in contact (or employer) to let them know what’s happened.
Consider your options and weigh your personal safety risks. If you’re at risk of being hit by another vehicle, move your vehicle to a safer spot (a wider shoulder, away from a corner, for example). If you can’t move your vehicle, you may need to step away from your vehicle. If help is on the way and should arrive soon, your lowest risk option is probably to stay with your vehicle.
If you do stay with your vehicle, take wise precautions. Avoid overexertion and exposure. Avoid prolonged exposure to exhaust fumes. If you’re sitting in your vehicle with the engine running, open a window slightly to make sure you get fresh air. If it’s snowing, periodically brush snow off your vehicle and your emergency triangles to maximize your visibility.
Review our Driving for the Conditions Tool Kit for more tips.
Reading the road
Various road surfaces react differently to cold temperatures, snow, and ice. Be aware that bridge decks and overpasses may be more slippery when the temperature drops. Steep grades and frost heaves can also create driving challenges. Watch out for potholes and puddles that may be deeper than you think.
Knowing how to assess road conditions helps you adjust your driving. Here are some clues to look for:
The amount and type of tire spray can tell you a lot about road conditions.
A slushy spray that dirties windshields and leaves brown snow on your hood generally means good traction.
If there’s less spray but the road looks wet, beware. That’s a sign the road is beginning to freeze. A coarse spray with ice crystals can signal a freezing road and ice. White snow on your hood means limited traction.
If the road is wet with little or no spray, you may be on black ice.
Black ice isn’t actually black. it’s a clear, thin layer of ice that may appear black because it takes on the dark colour of the pavement below. Whatever the colour, it’s dangerous because it’s difficult to see and hard to know where it may be present. You’ll often find it in places that get less sunlight – like tunnels, roads under overpasses, and streets shaded by trees. Black ice is most common early in the morning or late at night when there’s no sun to warm the pavement.
Be especially alert when:
- Temperatures drop below freezing overnight after a rainy winter day or night
- Snow melts during the day and temperatures dip at night
- Temperatures fluctuate between 5C and -5C
- You notice a sheen on the road and glare from the sun or vehicle headlights
Check the elevations of major summits and passes on BC highways to get information about any long, steep grades. In poor driving conditions you may want to find an alternate route or wait for conditions to improve.
If you must make the trip, here are some driving tips:
When climbing upgrade:
- Assess the conditions before attempting the climb.
- Maintain your momentum. If your drive wheels spin, ease off the gas.
When travelling downgrade:
- Reduce your speed before the grade.
- Gear down to help slow your vehicle. Brake gently and evenly.
If you’re driving a large commercial vehicle, install chains before the grade (uphill or downhill), or as directed by road signs.
Skidding and loss of driver control cause many preventable crashes on curves. Proceed with caution around sharp bends, since reduced sight distance can hide hazards ahead.
If you think a corner might be slippery, ease off the gas pedal and slow to a safe speed less than the posted speed limit before you start into the corner. Set yourself up so that you won’t have to make a hard brake application when you’re in the corner. As you go through the corner, apply very little if any gas and more or less glide through the corner. Once you’re safely through the corner, gently accelerate back up to safe speed.
Driving for work in winter
Driving may be the most dangerous thing you do at work. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of traumatic workplace deaths in BC.
If you drive full time, part time, or just occasionally as part of your job, you drive for work. This applies to any driving that’s work-related, from making sales calls or deliveries to running work errands. The vehicle you drive is your workplace, whether your organization owns it or you do.
If you drive vehicles with a GVW in excess of 5000 kg, review our commercial carriers section.
Safe work driving practices
Start by reviewing our tips for safe winter driving, learning more about driving in snow and ice, and reviewing our What Workers Need to Know guide (PDF 2MB) and Practical BC Winter Driving Tips webinar. Then follow these work-related driving tips:
Review them with your supervisor or employer. Ask for explanations and demonstrations of what’s required. They may cover everything from driving alone to what to do if you get stranded or are involved in a crash.
Many vehicle crashes are caused by human error. Ensure your employer gives you instruction and training on how to safely operate a work vehicle in winter conditions (including how to install and drive with chains, if applicable). That could include taking one of our online courses or watching one of our webinars.
Make sure winter tires are installed, even in milder climates. They provide better traction in cold weather and in snow, slush, and icy conditions. Do a circle check by walking around the vehicle before each trip. Inspect its overall condition and report any concerns to your supervisor.
If scheduled maintenance is due, make sure it’s done before you drive. If it’s your own vehicle, you’re responsible for having the work done.
Tell your supervisor and work colleagues as soon as you become aware of any poor weather, vehicle, or road conditions. Make winter safety suggestions to your supervisor and your organization’s safety representative or committee.