10 tips for mastering safe winter driving

As roads transform into a picturesque but challenging landscape, driving becomes a test of patience, skill, and caution. The interplay of snow, ice, and reduced visibility can transform roads into treacherous paths with danger lurking around every corner.

Armed with the right knowledge and preparation, you can confidently navigate the winter wonderland. In this article, we share ten essential tips and strategies to help you master safe winter driving and protect yourself, your passengers, and other traffic participants.

1. Follow the weather forecast and plan ahead

Following weather forecasts and road condition reports from local authorities is essential before setting out on a winter drive. If you can, avoid driving during severe weather warnings. If you absolutely have to drive, plan extra time for your commute, as traffic in snowy and icy weather will definitely be slower.

When it snows, it's advisable to opt for main roads and highways that are well-maintained and regularly cleared by snowplows. Avoid small streets with complicated intersections that often have limited space for maneuvering and may not be plowed or salted adequately. Steer clear of roads with steep inclines or declines, as the risk of losing traction and sliding is higher, especially when going downhill.

2. Learn to recognize dangerous conditions

Winter weather is not only snow or ice; various challenges can significantly impact driving conditions. For example, reduced visibility due to snowfall, fog, or sleet leads to slower reaction times and potential accidents.

Heavy rainfall or thaw can create particularly hazardous conditions. With air temperatures around 0°C, driving conditions can become extreme, with the possibility of "black ice" forming on the road.

It’s also crucial to be aware of your car drive. Front-wheel drive cars “behave” very differently from rear-wheel drive cars on ice and snow. For example, your car drive influences actions like speeding up or slowing down when changing lanes or when losing traction on the road.

Black ice is a transparent layer of ice on road surfaces, which is particularly dangerous as it's often hard to spot, causing unexpected loss of control.

3. Clear snow and ice from your car (properly)

It’s essential to clean your windows, mirrors, lights, and turn signals to remove snow, dirt, or ice that may obstruct their visibility or brightness. Make sure your number plate is clean and clearly visible.

Many drivers don't clear the snow from the roof of their car in a hurry, but it's imperative to do so. As the car heats up, the snow on the roof melts, posing a danger to yourself and others. When braking, this heap of ice and snow can slide down onto the windscreen, seriously impairing visibility or flying into other cars.

Before you begin your snow-clearing workout, start your car and use this time to warm up the vehicle.

4. Check your car’s condition and equipment

Cold and moisture can be hard to endure for people and cars as well. Freezing temperatures can compromise vehicle functionality, affecting tire pressure, battery performance, and engine operation.

Before embarking on a winter journey, ensure your vehicle is in optimal condition – check wipers, lights, battery health, and fluid levels. Switch to a winter window fluid so the system doesn't freeze when the frost sets in. Maintaining at least a half-full gas tank prevents fuel lines from freezing and provides a buffer in case of unexpected delays.

When it comes to tires, ensure they are suitable for the season and not too worn out. The use of winter tires is compulsory in Estonia between December 1 and March 1, and tire tread depth should be at least 4 mm (preferably more). If you’re living outside the city, it’s better to choose studded tires.

Finally, equip your vehicle with an emergency kit. Items like an ice scraper, snow shovel, blanket, flashlight, jumper cables, and non-perishable snacks can be lifesavers in a winter emergency.

5. Adapt your driving techniques

Adjusting driving techniques to suit winter conditions is crucial for safe travel. We already mentioned that you should familiarize yourself with your vehicle's capabilities and limitations in winter conditions, starting with whether it is a front or rear-wheel drive. In addition, practice these safe driving techniques:

  • Accelerate and slow down gradually to minimize skidding. Abrupt movements can cause loss of control on slippery surfaces.
  • Increase following distance to allow for extended braking distances.
  • Show your turn indicator well in advance so that other drivers can anticipate your turn and react in time.
  • Brake gently and steadily to avoid skidding. Consider using anti-lock braking system (ABS) if your vehicle has it.
  • Stay calm and focus on the road and your surroundings, anticipating potential hazards. Keep distractions (like your phone) at bay.

6. Use proper lighting

Proper lighting is imperative for visibility, so ensure your vehicle's headlights, taillights, and signal lights function correctly.

In Estonia, the use of headlights is mandatory for all vehicles, even during daylight hours. Regardless of the rules in your country of residence, it’s wise to keep low beam headlights on during the day to make yourself visible and increase your perception of the road ahead. 

Fog lights
These lights are designed to improve visibility in fog, mist, heavy rain, snow, or dust. Fog lights are positioned underneath headlights and help illuminate the road closer to the ground, making it easier to see the road markings and edges. Fog lights are typically used together with low beam headlights.

High beam headlights
High beams are indispensable when driving in the dark, especially on rural roads and open highways where street lighting may be sparse. High beams can help you see farther down the road and avoid hitting animals, bicyclists, or pedestrians taking a late-evening stroll.
It is crucial to dim high beams for oncoming traffic or when approaching another vehicle from behind to avoid blinding other drivers. High beams should never be used in fog, rain, or snow, as they can worsen visibility by shining directly into the fog or snow.

7. Watch out for pedestrians and cyclists

Winter doesn’t only bring snow and ice – it also comes with fewer daylight hours and reduced visibility. In dusk and darkness, pedestrians and cyclists can suddenly appear seemingly “out of nowhere,” so you must be extremely vigilant to notice them in time.

Last but not least – minimize distractions while driving, such as using your phone or adjusting music, especially in low-light conditions. Your full attention on the road increases your ability to notice pedestrians and cyclists.

Slow down near all pedestrian crossings (even if there’s seemingly noone around) to spot people not wearing reflectors. Use high beams on unlit stretches of road as often as possible to increase visibility.

8. Think twice before changing lanes

Many winter accidents happen due to the trivial reason of drivers changing lanes unnecessarily. In winter, this is a dangerous habit, especially if there’s a slush of ice and snow between lanes.

If you really need to change your lane and have a front-wheel drive car, it’s important to ensure traction until the car is stabilized in the required lane. As long as the front wheels are pulling forward, the rear will not slip.

For rear-wheel drive cars, traction is not recommended when changing lanes as the rear end may slip if speed is increased. Instead, drive your car in a straight and gentle manner.

Don’t change lanes only because one seems to move a bit quicker than another. If you don’t absolutely have to change lanes to make a turn, better stay put.

Changing lanes is the easiest in a four-wheel drive car – the main advice is to maintain traction and be precise with the steering.

9. Go on an icy test drive in a safe place

It’s a good idea to practice driving in an empty, snow-covered parking lot to understand how your vehicle handles slippery surfaces. Ideally, take an expert or a more experienced driver with you to explain how to handle skidding situations.

If you have doubts and lack confidence about driving in winter conditions, consider taking a safe driving course. Such practical training can help to improve your winter driving skills - steering, braking, and negotiating obstacles in naturally slippery conditions.

10. Get Casco insurance

Even the most proficient and careful drivers can face accidents and crashes in winter. For example, weather-related damage or running into a forest animal can happen to anyone.

Casco insurance can be your safety net for unexpected situations, providing financial protection for you in case of vehicle damage, accidents, or theft. If Casco Insurance includes 24/7 roadside assistance, coverage for collisions with animals, and many other risks, so you needn’t worry if you’re insured with us.

If your car gets damaged, you can easily submit a claim within the If self-service or If Mobile Baltics mobile app.

Good luck practicing safe winter driving!

Icy and slick roads, lack of vehicle maintenance, and poor visibility are among the top causes of winter car accidents. By understanding these challenges and implementing the strategies we’ve suggested, you can confidently face winter driving challenges and ensure the safety of yourself and others.

Remember, the key to safe winter driving lies in preparedness, awareness, and a willingness to adjust your driving behavior.