Fatalities actually fall during winter months, researchers at the University of California have found. People drive less, and drive more slowly when they do get behind the wheel. But the number of property-damage-only crashes soars by 45 percent on snowy days compared with dry.
Hitting a dozen cars as you slide down a hill, brake pedal floored the whole way, may not injure you. But it will probably increase your insurance rates. It will also make you fodder for the entertainment of those who choose to stay home. (We'll start you off with a classic: winter car bowling in Seattle.)
Of course, you shouldn't drive too fast and hammer the brakes. Snow, ice and black ice are a quick lesson in how car physics change in freezing weather, and it takes a lifetime of expertise to display the skills this bus driver shows.
But much of the idiocy bad weather brings to the roads stems from lack of foresight or ignorance of the basics. We asked some experienced hands about beginners' mistakes. Take heed of these hallmarks of future YouTube stars:
1. They don't clear the windshield completely. Eva Lipson of Truckee, Calif., says she has seen visitors to her ski town remove snow from only a small area of their windshields before taking off driving. Driving with a football helmet on would give them a better view. Clear the entire windshield and side and rear windows, and put de-icer in the windshield washer fluid so you can keep it clean as you drive through mud and snow, she recommends. Many snowpocalypse veterans will throw a blanket or tarp over the windshield to make the clearing easier.
2. They don't brush snow off headlights and taillights. Removing snow from windows helps drivers see out, but forgetting the lights doesn't help other drivers see them, says Marc Pitman, a Maine resident who has lived in the Northeast his entire life. "I really honestly don't think people think below the windshield," says Pitman, who too often can't see turn signals or brake lights from snow on cars. Snow from the roof can also cause a problem if it blows onto the windshield of a car behind you.
3. They don't wait for the defogger to work. You've started your car, cleared the snow off and by the time you get in the car to go, you're soaked and your windows steam up. Take the time to let the defrost work so you can see, recommends Lipson. Turning on the air conditioner will speed the process.
4. They drive on the wrong tires. Tires are the only part of your car touching the road - in effect, they are your car's shoes. Driving in snow on summer-rated tires is like wearing Crocs to run a marathon. No other feature of your car matters as much -- not even all-wheel-drive. If you don't have snow tires, at least make sure you have all-season tires with decent tread depth. (Retailer Tire Rack says even all-seasons lose their effectiveness once tread depth falls below 6/32".) For people who don't drive in the snow often, chains are cheap and effective and are sometimes required in mountainous areas. But make sure you test-fit them when the weather's nice; you don't want to learn on a remote mountain road.
5. They have all-wheel-drive overconfidence. TV ads promote all-wheel-drive systems and electronic stability control as a worry-free ways to drive in the snow, but the overconfidence they instill can let drivers get too cocky and drive too fast in icy conditions. Winter-driving experts advise drivers to ask their tires to do one task at a time: brake, turn, or accelerate.
6. They punch the gas pedal. Whether stuck in the snow or stopped on ice, hitting the gas pedal hard will only lead to digging a deeper hole in the snow, or fishtailing and possibly crashing on ice, says Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem of Ontario. Spinning the wheels won't get a car unstuck, but rocking it back and forth will, she says. Belleghem says she's had to wave off bystanders who try to push her when she rocks her car.
7. They tailgate snowplows. In many places, following a snowplow too close is a traffic violation. The pavement behind a plow may be clear, but the air is thick with a cloud of obscuring snow. Rear-end collisions are frequent -- and usually the snowplow will come out on top. Amy Jardon of Cedar Falls, Iowa, says she has seen snowplows clearing three lanes -- and three drivers tucked right behind them.
Yes, insurance will probably cover you for anything you do (including hitting curbs or getting stuck). And winter conditions can sometimes be grounds for keeping a designation of fault off your driving record. (See "Not at fault, but you still have to pay.")
But even the right insurance coverage doesn't cover the hassle -- or the potential embarrassment -- of neglecting winter basics. Learn how to handle common winter crises in "I had to abandon my car!"