Winter Driving

Guess what?

Winter is coming; don’t be fooled by the balmy temperatures we’ve been enjoying.   Environment Canada says Canada is in for a colder than average winter, although here in the Maritimes they predict it will be above average.  But we still can expect snow, maybe lots of it.

Winter Tires

Winter tires that are in good condition can shorten braking distances by as much as 25 per cent.  They are much better than all season, and four winter tires are much better than two.  Some experts say if you only have two winter tires, they should go on the back, even on a front wheel drive car, because there is less weight there and you need the extra grip for skid or spin control.  Others say they should go on the front, where they will give you better braking as well as better traction for getting through heavy snow.  Tire shops always recommend that you go with four; some will even insist on it and will refuse to mix tire types, but it is not the law.

Winter tires are made with a softer compound than summer tires in order to maximize grip.  The downside to this is usually faster tire wear, a good reason to remember to switch back to summer tires in the spring.

One other thought.  If you have an all-wheel or four wheel drive vehicle, you will only obtain the full benefit of that option with four good winter tires.  You paid for the extra feature, you should enjoy it.


You’ve probably heard that studs earn mixed reviews.  They are most effective at temperatures near zero.  When the mercury dips toward -20C or lower, tire compound becomes much more significant.  The important thing is to be prepared to adjust your driving; don’t expect your studs to work as well when it is really cold.

You’ve also probably heard that in Quebec, studs must be removed for the summer.  The actual date is May 1.   What you may not know is that winter tires are now compulsory in that province from October 15 to March 15.  All season tires won’t do.  The fine for an infraction is $200 to $300, although you won’t lose any points.


Cars are much more reliable than they once were, and a properly serviced vehicle shouldn’t need an auxiliary heater. But if you do have indications your car might have a problem starting in cold weather, first choice would be a block heater.  Block heaters are widely used in colder areas of Canada.   In the north, block heaters are often standard equipment in new vehicles.  In extremely cold climates, electrical outlets are sometimes found in public or private parking lots.


If you haven’t done so recently, it’s time to check your antifreeze.  Your regular service provider can do it for you, and usually it will be part of a winter prep package.  If you prefer, you can do it yourself, accurate hydrometers are available at auto parts centres for less than ten dollars.

Antifreeze comes pre-mixed, and may include additives to inhibit rust. You need to insure that the brand of antifreeze you chose is compatible with the vehicle you are driving. Many manufacturers now utilize specialized formula’s and using an incompatible brand may cause a cooling system failure and overheating.  It is always a good idea to read the label on the product as well as your vehicle owner’s manual.  It will instruct you on how to check levels, verify the specification of the antifreeze you need, and how to top up, if required.

You normally only add coolant to the overflow reservoir.  If you must remove the radiator cap, never do so while the engine is hot; you could be seriously injured.   First, stop the engine; when it has cooled, place a rag over the radiator cap, push down hard and turn to release the cap.


Most vehicles have anti-lock brake systems that deliver excellent stopping performance on dry and wet surfaces automatically.  But if yours doesn’t, careful braking should bring vehicles to a reasonably quick controlled stop even in slippery conditions.  Brake as hard as possible without locking the wheels.  If you feel the wheels locking up, release the brake pressure slightly then re-apply.  Avoid pumping the brakes.

ABS brakes are great, but don’t expect them to significantly shorten your stopping distance.  Compared to conventional braking systems, stopping on ice and snow may actually take longer. The ABS system releases and reapplies the brakes automatically when traction is lost, therefore steering control is maintained.  On ice or snow, a conventional braking system can drag the wheels which will often shorten the stopping distance.  The downside of course will be a loss of steering control.

If your car is ABS equipped, applying the emergency brake would have the effect of locking the driving wheels and could help reduce the stopping distance, which may be more important in some situations than steering.  Winter driving on ice and snow requires special skills to maintain control.

It’s a good idea to practice emergency braking to understand how your vehicle will react.  But don’t test yourself on a city street.  The best place would be a big, empty parking lot.  Some driving schools offer instruction in controlled situations to help you improve your winter driving skills.


You can’t be too careful in winter; conditions can change rapidly.  If you need a graphic reminder, google, “Youtube winter highway collision.”  The URL of one video is below (caution, it is very disturbing):

Parking tips

Before you set out, consider whether there will be somewhere for you to park once you arrive.  If there is a winter ban, see if there a public lot nearby.  Keep an eye out for no parking signs or restricted parking signs that are specific to winter conditions, you don’t want to come back to find your car has been towed.

Take note of the road surface conditions.  That daytime puddle may become ice when darkness falls.  Avoid parking at the bottom of a hill or incline, and be prepared for plowing operations.  You could find yourself behind a big bank of frozen snow.

Other Winter Tips

Get your vehicle ready before the first flake hits the ground.  Things you may need include: a warm coat, gloves and a hat, an ice scraper and brush, an emergency blanket, lock de-icer, traction sand or salt, traffic cones, a flashlight, and non-perishable snacks, such as granola bars.  If you don’t routinely carry a cell phone, you might consider obtaining a cheap phone for emergencies, particularly if you are planning an extended winter trip.

Consider switching to winter wiper blades.  They can be much better at clearing your windows and don’t freeze up as readily.   Keep your windshield wash reservoir full with a de-icing antifreeze.  Be sure that you can see and that people can see you.  Check your headlights and tail lights regularly to ensure all are in optimum working order, and are not obstructed by snow or ice.  Carry a shovel.

Clean your car off before you start.  You need maximum visibility at all times; you don’t want snow from the roof sliding down your window in the midst of traffic.

Watch out for black ice.  The road which was bare in the afternoon may become covered with a deadly sheet of invisible clear ice at night, the result of snow melt run-off.

Leave early.  Give yourself extra time so you don’t have to drive fast to keep your appointments.

Keep your gas tank full.  You don’t want to run out of gas if your trip takes longer than expected.

Finally, don’t go out if you don’t have to.  The safest way to drive on snowy or icy roads is not to drive on them at all.  If you have the option to work from home, take advantage of it.  And if you know bad weather is on its way, prepare your home with extra food and entertainment.  Grab a new book or rent a few movies.  Think of all the benefits to staying in – most importantly, your safety – and enjoy watching a winter storm unfold through a window.

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