Winter Driving: Another Kind of Memorable Trip

For those living in the sunny bright climes of the southern U.S., winter driving for the holidays may not be a consideration.

On the other hand, Houston Texas had 3-4” of snow on Dec. 3, turning area roads into what one reporter called a “bumper car festival” .

Winter driving used to be a big part of my Christmas holiday, making a trip home to Brookings, South Dakota. Initially I made the trip from St. Paul, MN, and later, Madison, WI, both drives of several hundred miles in length.

I no longer make the holiday trip…experience has taught that winter driving is often an adventure (sometimes an odyssey) that, at any given point during the drive may be beyond my skills.

In fact, a winter driving trip from Madison, WI, to St. Paul, MN, circa 1989, was so memorable that it has yet to be repeated. The morning I left St. Paul to drive back to Madison, 9” of snow had already fallen. I was driving my trusty little Chevy Cavalier.

As it turns out, in addition to snowing it had rained in WI. This resulted in conditions on I-90/I-94 that could best be called “washboard-like”. The ice/snow pack on the interstate was full of holes, and not unlike driving over corrugated steel, which of course you would never do on purpose.

Due both to the intensity of the falling snow and the rough road surface, it was unsafe to drive faster than 35mph. And typical of interstate driving conditions during a snowstorm, the left or passing lane was in worse shape than the right lane.

The line of cars driving 35mph in the right hand lane was growing by the minute. This led to a situation where when the person 25 cars ahead of you touched the brakes, each car in succession had to brake. The result was a pretty wave of flashing brake lights extending over one-half a mile. However, the effect of the braking was that you were in constant danger of either clobbering the car in front of you or being rear-ended by the one behind.

This was all to rich for my blood. To get to a safer place away from that line of cars, I decided to accelerate just enough to pass and move ahead to where the right lane was free of cars.

Moving into the left lane was an act of faith, both in my car tires and my ability to keep the car on the road. I found a kindred spirit in a woman driving the Buick LeSabre just ahead of me. She pulled into the left passing lane at about the same time I did.

We spent the next 10 miles or so moving back and forth from the right lane to the passing lane. We’d pass a line of cars, then move back to the right lane and breathe easier. But we’d always catch up to another line of cars. The left lane was dicey, but less trafficked.

Cars were going into the ditch…every 1-2 miles you would pass one or two. One of those cars was a WI State Highway Patrolman.

At one point, the Buick pulled into the left lane; I followed her. As we increased speed, her car started to fishtail wildly. See rules 1-3, below…about avoiding other cars during winter driving.

Something needed to happen quickly, for me to avoid an accident or the ditch. To keep traction, especially in my little car, I had to maintain a certain speed. So while I could drop back slightly to put space between us, at speeds below 30mph, I was at risk of sliding off the road. And of course there was now a car beside me in the right lane.
I prayed that the Buick would quickly get straightened out or go into the ditch. Sadly, the latter happened. It was a clean slide; she simply hit the shoulder and kept going. Her car stopped, upright, in the snowy median. I would have worried about her, except that there were so many cars in the ditch that I knew rescue vehicles would be along soon, particularly to recover that State Trooper.

Somewhere south of Eau Claire, WI, we drove out of that band of snow, and the roads cleared, returning to “good winter driving condition”.

I’m not a professional driver, just a driver with some winter road experience. You might consider the following thoughts on safe winter driving:

  1. Avoid other cars as much as possible.
  2. Maintain a situation where you are in control of your surroundings, meaning in control of your car’s speed and the distance between you and the next car. In other words, avoid other cars as much as possible.
  3. Consider your destination and time it normally takes to get there. Be willing to double or triple that amount of time. Then, if you don’t think you can handle a road trip of two to three times the normal length, don’t go.
  4. Focus first on the current conditions but keep in mind the amount of time it could take to get to your destination. As much as possible, optimize your driving time.
  5. Take a blanket, water, high energy food such as candy bars, matches and a candle or two in your car. Charge your cell phone before starting the trip.
  6. People may do crazy things. You could be one of those people. Employ defensive driving to the ultimate. And don’t forget about the other cars on the road.
  7. It takes intense focus to handle a car in really bad weather and road conditions. In my experience, white knuckles lead to tense, exhausted arms, shoulders and upper back. You may even experience a rush of adrenaline. Open the window for some cold, fresh air. Take really deep breaths, and exhale fully. Continue until your heart rate slows to normal.
  8. If you’re really tense due to wintery road conditions, crank up any kind of music that keeps your outlook positive and helps you relieve tension. Sing loudly, move your shoulders, bob your head as much as good driving practice allows.

Take it easy out there and have a good holiday trip.

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. Hi Kari,

    Another tip that comes from my delightful commute this morning: When it’s snowing and slushy and people are sliding off the road left and right…DO NOT TALK ON YOUR CELL PHONE while driving.

    Keep both hands on the wheel. Both eyes on the road and the drivers in front, behind and beside you. Both ears listening intently.

    People can call their friends and tell them all about the commute and the pretty white snowflakes after the car is parked or after it is driven off the road, whichever comes first.


  2. First of all, great tips, Isobel. I need to read them more than once.
    However, after reading Michele’s comments (great advice on when to not report, via cell, driving conditions–very funny too), am hoping that no one downloads the winter driving tips, and attempts to refer to them, while driving.
    ]; >

  3. I enjoyed this, Kari: good stuff! Coincidentally, I just finished a book about our relationship with cars called ‘Traffic’. Highly recommended!

  4. “Traffic” sounds interesting, Liz. Thanks for the book suggestion. You in the DC area have had some winter driving experience this year, haven’t you?

  5. Good advise. Thanks for providing this important information. This winter driving review should be taken seriously. We are not the only person who driving on winter time. Without awareness, we still put our life at risk on winter driving. Thanks again for sharing this :)

    1. Thanks Aaron. It’s been a month since the winter driving blog was posted, but still plenty of winter driving here. Icy rain expected tonight and this weekend, in southern WI.

  6. It was an epic winter in the UK–we heard of it even here in WI! Similar to that of the Boston-Philadelphia-DC-NYC area. Have wondered the toll the weather takes on those that drive for a living…and their freight. Let’s enjoy summer while it’s here!

  7. Thanks for the post!

    I was raised in Florida so tire chains were completely foreign to me, until I moved to CA a few years ago. I don’t know why I moved out there in the middle of winter, wasn’t precisely a smart idea. It had by no means even occured to me that I may require tire chains once I got closer to California and needed to cross over the mountains. As soon as I got closer to CA and began heading up into the mountains, I noticed that everyone ahead of me was pulling over. That’s when I observed that there was a horde of people getting out tire chains and putting them on. Of course becoming from FL I didn’t even have any with me, so I had to purchase some off a guy correct there about the side from the road.

    1. Thanks for sharing your tire chain experience! I lived in Bozeman, MT for part of one year, and found the signs announcing “Chain up area” alongside of the road, somewhat curious, maybe because it was not winter. A local said to not worry, that should a mountain pass require tire chains, someone alongside the road would be happy to sell me some. Sounds like precisely what happened to you.

  8. While we’re dabbling in the area of Winter Driving: Another Kind of Memorable Trip Promega Connections, It is a fact that each of us at some point or the other might have experienced driving fear and anxiety in an adverse traffic situation. Studies have revealed that people with driving fear are the safest on the roads as their anxiousness make them more attentive

  9. Given that we’re speaking about things within the region of Winter Driving: Another Kind of Memorable Trip Promega Connections, Always keep the car clean and washed. It is also recommended that the car be waxed regularly. This helps by improving aerodynamics and can help in improving gas mileage.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that driving a clean car is certainly preferable to driving a dirty one. Tow trucks might more easily see my clean car if it ends up stuck in the snowy median, as well.

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