Top 4 Mistakes Drivers Make on Ice


The weather outside is frightful—and drivers who commit these four errors are just making it harder.

driving in winter

It’s that time of year again—as I write, parts of the Northeast are being pounded with snow, and who knows what winter storms the holiday travel season could bring. If there’s one inalienable truth about winter weather, it is this: If you don’t prep for it, it can get the best of you on the road. I’ll never forget driving in Kansas City one January morning, trying to inch my 1998 Toyota Camry up a snowy, icy hill with basically nothing more than sheer willpower. I tried, I slid. I tried, I slid. I sweated through my coat. Finally, through some combination of turning my wheels and asking for a cosmic favor, I made it.

Driving on ice is perhaps the scariest winter weather obstacle of all: Sometimes you can’t even see it, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of your brakes not doing what they’re supposed to do. To help you prep for the season, here are the top four mistakes drivers make on ice—and how you can avoid them.

Not a pretty sight before your morning commute.
Not a pretty sight before your morning commute.

Where Drivers Go Wrong

1.) Not prepping your car for winter

In sunny Austin, Texas, where The Zebra is based, we don’t have to do much winter car prep. But in much of the country, it’s absolutely worth it to set yourself a reminder around Halloween each year to get your car ready for the tough season ahead of it. Here’s what to include on your winter-prep list, courtesy the Car Care Council:

  • Have the battery and charging system checked for optimum performance. Cold weather is hard on batteries.
  • Clean, flush and put new antifreeze in the cooling system. As a general rule of thumb, this should be done every two years.
  • Make sure heaters, defrosters and wipers work properly. Consider winter wiper blades and use cold weather washer fluid. As a general rule, wiper blades should be replaced every six months.
  • Check the tire tread depth and tire pressure. If snow and ice are a problem in your area, consider special tires designed to grip slick roads. During winter, tire pressure should be checked weekly.
  • Be diligent about changing the oil and filter at recommended intervals. Dirty oil can spell trouble in winter. Consider changing to “winter weight” oil if you live in a cold climate. Have your technician check the fuel, air and transmission filters at the same time.
  • If you’re due for a tune-up, have it done before winter sets in. Winter magnifies existing problems such as pings, hard starts, sluggish performance or rough idling.
  • Have the brakes checked. The braking system is the vehicle’s most important safety item.
  • Have the exhaust system checked for carbon monoxide leaks, which can be especially dangerous during cold weather driving when windows are closed.
  • Check to see that exterior and interior lights work and headlights are properly aimed.

Another pro tip? Make sure to keep your tank about half-full, at least, at all times during chilly months. Doing so reduces the chances of moisture forming in the gas lines, and possibly freezing.

2.) Never practicing how to drive on ice

If you’ve never felt your antilock brake system kick in before, trust us: You don’t want the first time to be while you’re sliding across a gnarly patch of ice in heavy traffic. Though the shuddering can be a bit nerve-wracking, the truth is the ABS really works: On slippery surfaces, even pro drivers can’t stop as quickly without ABS as an average driver can with the system on their side.

Why not take an experienced winter driver with you, head to a deserted parking lot, and feel what trying to stop on a patch of ice is actually like? Other keys to remember: Aggressive accelerating is likely to be impossible on a patch of slippery ice, so go slow throughout your drive, keeping your speed as steady as possible. And though many drivers think turning into a skid when the real wheels slide will pull them out of it, Men’s Health explains that you should instead point the front wheels to where you want the car to travel.

Beautiful—and deadly.
Beautiful—and deadly.
3.) Assuming that if you can’t see a glaze on the road, it’s not there

Black ice is real, and really dangerous: According to IcyRoadSafety.com, there are on average more than 450 fatalities annually from ice accidents alone. And black ice is particularly scary, because it earns its name: The stuff is truly difficult to see, and maybe even more difficult to navigate.

It can help to know when to expect black ice: It tends to form early in the morning and in the evening, when roads are cooler. It forms right at about the freezing point, and often on parts of the road without much sunshine (think tunnels or tree-lined streets.) Other dangers include roads that don’t see much travel, bridges, and overpasses.

Ice accidents cause 450 fatalities on average each year.
4.) Panicking—and over-correcting

I can speak from personal experience here: Your increased heartrate, sweating palms, and general sense of total dread aren’t going to do you any favors in navigating a sticky (or rather, not sticky) situation on the road. Though of course you will want to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, in fact the best thing you can actually do is basically nothing. Don’t hit the brakes, and try to keep the steering wheel straight—if you try to struggle against the direction you feel your car sliding, you’re running the risk of skidding or spinning out.

Have any harrowing ice tales? Pro tips? Share them below.