‘WRECKLESS DRIVING’ during winter months: Prep vehicle, adjust driving according to conditions

At any temperature, whether it is minus 20 degrees or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather affects road and driving conditions. Plan your trip according to the forecast.

Graphic by U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center

By Erik Johnson, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center

Winter is approaching, and, depending on your location, many of us are already encountering varying weather conditions. Regardless of the weather, the mission must go on. As such, we must be prepared to drive in all types of hazardous conditions, be it fog, snow or ice.


Valley fog forms when cold, dense air drains from areas of higher elevation into low areas. As the cool air accumulates in the valley, the ambient temperature sometimes decreases to the dew point temperature and creates dense fog. Drivers should expect reduced visibility and turn on their vehicle’s lights, slow down and increase the following distances when driving in fog.

Freezing fog is composed of super-cooled water droplets that form when the temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. These droplets freeze and form ice as soon as they contact a cold surface. Freezing fog creates driving problems such as reduced visibility, poor traction and directional control, and possible skidding. Drivers should turn on their vehicle’s lights, reduce their speed, accelerate slowly, increase following distances, brake moderately and make turns slowly.


Snow forms when water vapor in the air freezes and creates small ice crystals. Some common hazards associated with driving in snow include reduced visibility and traction, less directional control and increased braking distance. When snow melts and refreezes, drivers encounter even more hazardous road conditions. Intersections, high-traffic areas and shady spots that were exposed to direct sunlight earlier in the day all are prone to ice over from melted snow. During snowy conditions, drivers must reduce their speed, brake moderately, make turns slowly and increase the following distance between vehicles.


Another dangerous condition associated with winter weather is windshield icing. Windshields and other glass surfaces can ice over when the temperature is low enough to freeze moisture on ground surfaces. Conditions are ripe for windshield icing any time there’s visible ground haze. All ice must be removed from the vehicle’s windshield and other windows before operations begin. Preventive maintenance checks and services should be performed on each vehicle to ensure the defroster and heater system are functioning properly. It’s a good idea to keep an ice scraper in your vehicle just in case the defroster stops working.

Black ice – a thin sheet of dark ice on the roadway – is extremely dangerous because it’s hard for drivers to detect before they’re actually on it. Black ice forms when light rain or drizzle falls on a road surface below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or when super-cooled fog droplets accumulate on bridges and overpasses. A roadway covered with black ice appears wet when the ambient temperature is below freezing.

Drivers must use extreme caution when driving on suspected black ice surfaces. Vehicles that hit black ice have little to no traction, which means little to no braking capability, and extremely poor directional control with a heightened possibility of skidding. Optimally, travel should stop in black-ice conditions. If that isn’t an option, drivers should reduce their speed, accelerate very slowly, increase the following distance between vehicles, brake very lightly and make all turns gradually and slowly.

Frost heaving, a condition related to icing, is the uneven lifting and distortion of the ground close to the surface. Frost heaving is the result of water within the soil freezing and expanding. This expansion might damage the road surface and loosen tree roots. The biggest danger associated with frost heaving is the possibility of trees falling across roads, but uneven road surfaces are much more common. Such uneven surfaces can interrupt directional control, which is especially problematic in areas such as curves. Drivers should slow down and look for buckled or uneven patches on the road during freezing weather.


Remember these guidelines when you’re on the road this winter and, most importantly, slow down! The cold won’t last forever. If you make it through the winter accident-free, you’ll have even more reason to celebrate when spring finally comes!

Be a ‘Wreck-less’ Winter Driver


The Army accident report stated, “Soldiers hit a patch of black ice after crossing a bridge and spun out of control, going into a narrow ditch and rolling the vehicle one complete time. Vehicle was traveling approximately 45 mph. Soldiers were all wearing their seat belts. All Soldiers were transported to local hospital … treated and released.”

This group of Army National Guardsmen encountered a surprise as they drove to their weekend drill. Fortunately, they chose to wear their seat belts and walked away from the experience wiser and none the worse for wear. But Guardsmen heading to drill won’t be the only Soldiers on the road this winter. Check out the following tips from the National Safety Council so your winter trips will have happy endings.


At any temperature, whether it is minus 20 degrees or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather affects road and driving conditions and can pose serious problems. Because of that, it is important to plan your trip in accordance with the weather forecast.

Your vehicle:

  • Prepare your vehicle for winter. Start with a checkup that includes:
  • Checking the ignition, brakes, wiring, hoses and fan belts
  • Changing and adjusting the spark plugs
  • Checking the air, fuel and emission filters and PCV valve
  • Checking the battery
  • Checking the tires for air, sidewall wear and tread depth
  • Checking the antifreeze level and freeze line

Your vehicle occasionally should also have a tune-up to ensure better gas mileage, quicker starts and faster response for pick-up and passing power. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the recommended intervals for tune-ups.

Necessary equipment

An emergency situation on the road can arise at any time and you must be prepared. Ensure you have a full tank of gas and fresh antifreeze in your radiator. In addition, you should carry the following items in your trunk:

  • Properly inflated spare tire, wheel wrench and tripod-type jack
  • Shovel
  • Jumper cables
  • Tow and tire chains
  • Bag of salt or cat litter for traction
  • Tool kit
  • Flares

Be prepared with a survival kit that should remain in the vehicle. Replenish it after each use. Essential supplies include:

  • Working flashlight and extra batteries
  • Reflective triangles and brightly colored cloth
  • Compass
  • First aid kit
  • Exterior windshield cleaner
  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • Wooden stick matches in a waterproof container
  • Scissors and string/cord
  • Nonperishable, high-energy foods like a can of unsalted nuts, dried fruits and hard candy

In addition, if you’re driving long distances in cold, snowy and icy conditions, you should also carry supplies to keep you warm such as heavy woolen mittens, socks, a cap and blankets.

If you become stranded:

  • Do not leave your vehicle unless you know exactly where you are, how far it is to possible help and are certain you will improve your situation.
  • To attract attention, light two flares and place one at each end of the vehicle a safe distance away. Hang a brightly colored cloth from your antenna.
  • If you are sure the vehicle’s exhaust pipe is not blocked, run the engine and heater for about 10 minutes every hour or so depending upon the amount of gas in the tank.
  • To protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia, use the woolen items and blankets to keep warm.
  • Keep at least one window open slightly. Heavy snow and ice can seal a vehicle shut.
  • Eat hard candy to keep your mouth moist.


As a Soldier, you have the Travel Risk Planning System available at All you have to do is log into TRiPS and follow the easy directions to see areas where you can increase your margin of safety on the road. By taking an overall look at your travel plans, TRiPS can alert you to dangers you may not be aware of and, at the same time, evaluate the level of risk in your trip. This handy online tool helps you to avoid hazards rather than having to confront them on the road.


The upcoming holidays contain the busiest travel days of the year, and many of us will hit the road to visit family and friends. Unlike the Guardsmen above, your trip doesn’t have to end with you in the hospital and your car in a ditch. Drive safe!

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