5 Winter Driving Hacks & Habits That Are Actually Illegal

winter parking lot
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As nice as drinking hot beverages and sitting by the fire can be, winter definitely has its downsides, and driving in winter weather is one of the biggest. We’d all like to make winter driving a little less painful, and we’ll take any #lifehacks we can get. However, there may come a time when a trick or habit crosses a line, legally speaking. Some of those winter driving hacks or habits could actually be against the law in some places. Here’s how to save yourself a ticket this year…

1. Using zip ties as tire chains

If you find yourself needing to drive in conditions that require tire chains, but you don’t have any around, you can easily find advice on the internet recommending DIY tire chains made from zip ties. There’s even a product from company ZipGripGo that sells a zip tie-like emergency traction aid. Don’t do it.

When a driver in California put this winter hack to the test, he got in hot water with the local authorities. Not only did they pull him over, but they blasted him on their Facebook page, telling followers “Don’t be this guy!” and confirming in the comments that using this type of product as tire chains in California is, in fact, against the law.

If you ever live or travel anywhere where you’re likely to need tire chains (which is likely to be hilly or mountainous regions that get hefty amounts of powder), go ahead and buy the real deal to keep in your car so you have them when you need them.  

winter weather driving tires

2. Idling to warm up your car

Ideally, you would head straight from one heated space to another during the cold winter months, but despite how cozy your home and office are, your car takes some time to warm up. It’s common for people to try to minimize that jolt of cold by starting their car a few minutes before they need to get going to let the heater run for a bit. But in most U.S. states, that’s illegal. In Washington D.C., you could even be subject to a fine as high as $5,000 if you get caught doing it.

Idling isn’t just a bad idea because it’s illegal though; it also makes it really easy for someone to steal your car. Stories of idling cars being stolen are more common than you might realize – 33 cars in 9 days in Edmonton, 19 over 4 days in Philadelphia – a quick Google search reveals how big of an issue it is. And idling doesn’t really warm up your car effectively anyways; you have to actually start driving to get the engine warm.

Oh, and it sucks for the environment, so we suggest layers and bundling up instead.

3. Using your hazards in bad weather

When it starts raining, snowing, or sleeting hard enough that you need to slow your speed to well below the speed limit, you may want to alert others by flashing your hazards. But next time you find yourself in a storm, rethink that impulse.

Many states have specific laws about when you can use your hazard lights, and driving in bad weather isn’t usually applicable. In fact, 10 states explicitly ban having your hazard lights on when you’re driving at all, since they can confuse other drivers who think you’re stopped or distract emergency crews who interpret them as indicating a traffic hazard or other problem.

If a storm is bad enough that you can’t drive safely in it, pull over until the worst passes. Otherwise, if you keep driving, keep those hazard lights off.  

winter weather windshield

4. Leaving snow on your car or ice on your windshield

You’re in a hurry and you just want to get going. But no matter how rushed your morning has been, don’t forget to stop and wipe or shovel the snow off the top of your car before you start driving. Why? For one, a number of states have laws against driving with snow still on your car.

Further, the snow on the roof of your car could easily slide and block your windshield when you break. Or, if it flies off onto  the car behind you, it can hurt their visibility or risk them getting into an accident. Some drivers have even been killed because of stray snow and ice from the top of a car.

And don’t forget the ice or frost on your windows. You may be impatient or in a hurry to get somewhere, but driving with impeded visibility because you can’t wait for the defroster to do its thing is just reckless. Countless people end up sideswiping other vehicles, hitting parked cars or much worse. Winter driving is risky enough without adding an extra danger due to casual laziness.

5. Using fog lights when there’s no fog

Some vehicles have fog lights installed in addition to headlights, which are useful for seeing more clearly on foggy days (as the name makes clear). But using them in clear weather can be blinding to other cars on the road. Some states therefore have laws banning their use whenever it’s not foggy out. If it’s dark or rainy, stick to using your usual headlights (not your brights!) and save the fog lights for actual fog.

Driving is dangerous in the best of times, but snow and ice up the stakes. Don’t let winter driving hacks or lazy habits increase your risk of injury, theft, or getting a ticket. Be cautious and patient and power through ‘til spring!