- 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 road, weather and traffic 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.
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.
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.
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.
Have an emergency plan
Assume you’re going to get stuck and prepare for it. If you do get stranded, don’t panic. Stay with your vehicle for safety and warmth. Call 911 if it’s an emergency. Avoid overexertion and exposure.
Be careful when running the engine with the windows closed because of potential exposure to exhaust fumes. Open a window slightly to make sure you get fresh air.
Set out a warning light or flares to help other drivers see you while you wait for help.
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. Our winter driving survival checklist (PDF 176KB) suggests items you may need specifically at this time of year. You can also use our emergency kit checklist (PDF 135KB) to develop a year-round kit.
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.
Speed limits are set for ideal driving conditions. And winter conditions are not always ideal. 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 important to slow down in rain and fog, too. Give yourself more time to react when you’re driving in slippery conditions.
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.
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.
It’s tough to read the road when black ice is involved. It may be invisible 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 lined with trees. Black ice is most common in the 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
- A light snowfall melts during the day and temperatures dip at night
- Temperatures fluctuate between 5C and -5C
Check the elevations of major summits and passes on BC highways to get information about any long, steep grades.
When climbing upgrade:
- Assess the conditions.
- Use chains when you need them or when directed by road signs.
- Maintain your momentum. If your drive wheels spin, ease off the gas.
When travelling downgrade:
- Ensure you have sufficient traction. If not, chain up before the grade.
- Reduce your speed before the grade.
- Gear down to help slow your vehicle. Brake gently and evenly.
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.