On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

How to not crash your car and other snow driving tips

Share story

Snow blows across a road
Two major snowstorms are bearing down on Minnesota this week. Here’s an annual reminder on how to stay safe while driving.
Shelby Lindrud | West Central Tribune file

Every winter, the first big snowstorms hit Minnesota and those of us who drive need to learn, all over again, how to drive in snow and ice. 

Before you hit the road for the first time this winter, read over this list so safety can be top of mind before you’re behind the wheel in the snow. 

Be mindful of snow emergencies

Getting towed and ticketed is even worse in the winter. Plus, getting your car out of the way helps city crews clean up the roads. Check with your city for information on when a snow emergency is called and where you can and can’t park. Here are links for Minneapolis and St. Paul updates. 

Essential tips and reminders before you hit the road

  • Don't drive. This one's pretty simple — avoid traveling unless it's absolutely necessary. 

  • Go slow, you won't regret it. One Reddit user had this advice for a new Minnesotan, courtesy of their father: "Better to be going slow and wish you were going fast, then to be going fast and wish you'd have gone slow."

  • Give yourself plenty of room to stop. Seriously, no matter what you drive, snowstorms will increase your stopping distance — possibly more than you'd realize before it's too late. And it goes without saying, no tailgating. 

  • Skip the cruise control. If your car skids on a slippery road, cruise control will still make your car accelerate because it's trying to maintain a constant speed. That'd take away your control in a snowy mess. And being out of control, is,  well, being out of control. 

  • Clean your windows and mirrors thoroughly. Visibility is bad enough in winter storms, so do yourself a favor and clear off every bit of glass on your car. 

  • Four-wheel drive isn't a miracle worker. It'll help you get going through slush, but four-wheel drive doesn't help braking or steering control. 

  • Turn on your headlights. You want everyone to see you coming. 

  • Make sure your vehicle is ready. Ample antifreeze, a full tank of gas and a snow brush are in-car staples. It's good to have your car stocked with what you'll need in case you get stranded.

  • Know how to correct your car if it starts to slide. There are three keys to stopping a vehicle once it has gone into a slide, says the website IcyRoadSafety.com: don't use the brakes (they can start a slide or worsen it); turn your wheels into the slide; and avoid over-correcting, which can make the spin-out worse.

  • Be especially cautious on bridges, overpasses and tunnels, advises the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And be careful in the morning too — MnDOT notes that air temperature increases faster than pavement temperature early in the day, and those conditions cause black ice to form.

  • Make sure there isn't ice covering your exhaust. As AAA notes, that can cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to build up inside the vehicle. 

  • Slow down, and give yourself extra time to stop. AAA says stopping distance on ice at 0 degrees is double that at 32 degrees. 

  • Learn emergency steering methods. AAA has a guide for how to use steering to avoid a crash. It says steering is better than braking at speeds over 25 mph — brakes just make the car slide more at that point. 

From our articles last winter and in 2018.

What to do if you get stranded

  • Pull as far off the road as possible to minimize being hit by passing cars and turn on your emergency flashers.

  • Stay in your car. You could become disoriented and lost trying to walk in a storm. 

  • If you haven't already, call 911 for help. Don't turn off your cellphone — it can be used to help rescuers pinpoint your location. 

  • Attach a brightly colored cloth to your car's antenna or car door. 

  • If it's dark, turn on your car's interior light so rescuers can more easily find you. 

  • Run the engine occasionally to keep warm, about 10 minutes each hour. Use that time to run the heater or recharge your phone, if possible. 

  • Clear snow away from the exhaust pipe. If you're running your engine, crack open a window for ventilation. 

  • Avoid overexerting yourself. Pushing a car in freezing temperatures can cause a heart attack or make other medical conditions worse.

From our 2015 article.

A lifelong Minnesota mechanic’s tips for winter vehicle survival

  • Get a new battery. "People will try to sneak by with an old battery," Donovan Olson, a former mechanic in Warroad, Minn., said in 2016. “But if you want your car to start you have to buy the best battery, not the cheapest one." Batteries fail without warning, Olson said. A top-of-the-line battery might cost more, but not as much as a call to the tow truck.

  • Get an oil change. Old oil gets thick with grime, making a cold engine harder to start.

  • Get a block heater. They're a relatively small investment, Olson said, and will keep an engine warm and easy to start through the coldest winter nights.

  • Check your tires. Conventional tires on a front-wheel drive car are effective, just make sure they're not bald.

  • Go for a long drive. In the depths of winter, Olson said people tend to hunker down. They drive only as far as they must. That can be a problem. If a car is only driven a few miles at a time, Olson said the engine will slowly fill with condensation. When that water freezes, it expands. “It'll push the side of the block right out," he said, "which ruins the engine, needless to say." Every now and then, Olson said it's a good idea to take a longer drive to burn away the water.

  • Go south for the winter. Cars might be able to handle Warroad's extreme cold, but it's still hard on the human body. “There's a place 60 miles south of Palm Springs called the 'fountain of youth,' " Olson said. "They have a hot spring. A month there gets the frost out of our bones." This, Olson said, is the very best way to get through a northern Minnesota winter.

From our 2016 article.