When the weather changes, driving can turn challenging — if not downright dangerous — fast. Blinding fog, black ice and blizzards are just a few of the conditions that can make driving perilous. It pays to be prepared.
SKYE asked René Villeneuve, a race car driver in the American Le Mans series and an instructor at Skip Barber Racing School, for his advice on how to drive in every weather condition. Click through for his tips.
Fog limits visibility, of course, so when driving through fog, make yourself visible to others. If you have fog lights, use them; if not, switch on your regular driving lights. Don't use your high beams, as they'll reflect the fog and create glare. Most importantly, slow down. Keep sight of the cars in front of you so that you won't be surprised by sudden braking. Give yourself enough distance so you'll have ample time to react if they slow down or stop. "The golden rule," says Villeneuve, "is only drive as fast as you can see."
Another helpful reminder from Villeneuve: The white lines on the side of the road are called "fog lines." That's because they are designed to illuminate when hit by headlights. Any time there's limited visibility, follow the fog lines as a guide.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when the sun obstructs our field of vision, we tend to overreact and look straight into the light. Instead, try looking farther down the road, beyond any blinding reflection. If it's a straight highway, look off to the side. The key, Villeneuve says, is to "always look where you want the car to go." Why? We tend to steer in the direction we're looking.
Smoke or Sand
Villeneuve advises treating dense smoke or sand storms like any other limited-visibility situation. "As visibility decreases, speed should decrease," he says. If you can't see, don't continue driving. "If you're feeling unsafe, pull off to the side of the road in a safe place — as far off the road as you can safely get."
When you drive over standing water, your tires can sometimes lose their grip, causing your car to "aquaplane," or "hydroplane." "The number one thing to remember is not to panic," Villeneuve says. "When in doubt, both feet out." Translation: Take your feet off the pedals and slow the car down in a controlled manner. Don't slam on the brakes or turn your steering wheel suddenly. "Fighting the car won't do any good," he says. Look where you want the car to go and allow the water to dissipate and the rubber to make contact with the pavement.
Water often accumulates on the edges of the freeway, flooding the outer lanes. This makes those lanes the least safe during and after a rainfall. Every road has a crown — the point where the road is at its highest — and it's usually in the middle lane. Using the middle lane will minimize the amount of standing water you'll drive through and decrease your potential for aquaplaning.
When strong winds are blowing, don't drive right next to other vehicles. If you drive an SUV or another automobile with a high profile, you're susceptible to being blown around. "If you're alone on the road, that's not so bad," Villeneuve says, "but being blown into or having a truck blown into you is not a good thing." Keep a safe distance from cars in front and behind you, too.
Icy or slushy roads can cause your front or rear tires to lose their grip. "Never overreact," Villeneuve says. "It can lead to worse consequences than doing nothing."
If your car spins out, follow three steps. Remember "C-P-R" — correct, pause, recover. As soon as the car slides, correct it by steering into the direction of the skid. The sooner you correct, the better. Next: Pause, or stop the lateral movement. To recover, aim the car in the direction you want it to go. Don't touch the pedals, because that will destabilize the car. Make sure to look in the direction you want the car to go. "You always steer where you're looking," Villeneuve says. "Your hands follow your eyes."
Snow and Ice
If there's a potential for snow or ice on the road, be sure to carry tire chains. Using chains limits your car's top speed and increases traction. Road signs often indicate when and where to install chains, but you can also decide to use them based on the severity of the weather, road conditions and your comfort level. If you have snow tires, Villeneuve says, you'll rarely need chains as well.
If you ever find yourself in a winter storm driving a car unequipped for heavy snow, Villeneuve suggests slowing down and following the tire tracks left by trucks.
Truck drivers are professional drivers and tend to be prepared. Follow their tracks and your tires will often grip the road better than they would otherwise. Just make sure to lower your speed because blowing snow often reduces visibility.
Snow Drifts or Mud Pits
If you find yourself stuck in snow or mud, don't make matters worse. "Once you're buried," Villeneuve says, "trying to gas it out is rarely going to work." First, try to dig yourself out. If you're stuck in mud, adding sand or a board under your tires can help gain traction.
Most cars have a stability or traction control system. One of the ways this system works is by applying brake force to slow down one or more wheels. That's usually a good thing, but not when you're trying to free a stuck car. Turn off the traction control system so the wheels can spin and the engine gains more power.
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The biggest concern that heat poses to a driver has more to do with car maintenance than driving technique. During hot weather, it's important to keep your car in peak condition. Check your tire pressure once a month, monitor coolant and other fluid levels, and have your car fully serviced regularly. Yes, you want to have your oil changed, but be sure mechanics also survey the entire system, checking for cracks in hoses and other potential problems.
"For relatively new cars, as long as you have proper maintenance, you should be in good shape," Villeneuve says. Still, if it's extremely hot out, he suggests turning off the air conditioner to decrease the load on your engine.