Winter driving precautions in Chicago?
December 8, 2013 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I just moved to Evanston, IL from North Carolina. It snowed about an inch today, and unlike what I'm used to, everything didn't shut down in panic. What do I need to know in order to make my driving commute a safe one?

I've looked up some advice on the internet, and it's basically talking about going really really slowly, and being aware that it's going to take a lot longer distance to brake. Do I need snow tires? Do I need to go hire some dude to teach me to drive on snow? Or am I probably OK as long as I stick to plowed streets?
posted by Comrade_robot to Travel & Transportation around Evanston, IL (40 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
THe big thing that comes to my mind is to keep in mind momentum and friction. You will be more likely to keep going in the direction you are going at the speed you are going when it's slippery (less friction). So slow down more (or stop) for turns than you normally would. Start stopping way sooner and more gently than normal when you need to. Keep your speed reasonable but constant before trying to climb a hill (to take advantage of the momentum and lack of friction).

Hope that is not too simplistic and obvious. I'm sure others will have better advice, but that's what I keep in my head when driving in the snow. Plowed roads can be more slippery, btw, than not-plowed if they are freshly plowed and unsalted by the way (think of ski trails...)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 4:43 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would be shocked if the streets were not perfectly clear for your commute tomorrow. The city and/or county likely has plenty of snow removal equipment. Also, I doubt you are going to have to deal much with hills.

(Here in the Seattle area, there's a joke that one time Bill Gates was upset that he couldn't get somewhere due to snow, so he bought the city a second snowplow.)

So yeah, basically go slower than you otherwise would and leave more distance in front of you. Remember anti-lock brakes will help you keep control while stopping, but they actually lengthen your stopping distance. If you start to skid, steer into the skid to regain control.

Your all-season radials will be fine for such a small amount of snow, especially if your car (like most) is front wheel drive. I lived in the Detroit area for ten years and got around fine in a Ford Probe with regular old all-seasons.
posted by kindall at 4:45 PM on December 8, 2013

The next snow, go find an empty parking lot and spend some time seeing how your car brakes, accelerates, spins, skids, etc, in the snow....
posted by HuronBob at 4:49 PM on December 8, 2013 [18 favorites]

You don't need snow tires -- you could certainly get some, but per a discussion from some friends recently, it's just a pain to keep them around for the rest of the year. Just get some nice tready tires and make sure you keep them properly inflated/checked. Cold weather can make the tires get underinflated.

I'm a Wisconsin driver, and while we are in general a good bunch of drivers, we consider Illinois drivers (read: Chicago drivers) to be their own breed. They can be a bit aggressive, particularly on the expressway. This goes for all weather, not just winter. So do pay attention.

But when you get to winter, be aware that upper Midwest drivers don't freak out at weather. (Maybe they should...) I remember driving up I-95 near Baltimore in a March rain, and everyone was going 40, bumper to bumper, because oh god precipitation. Chicago drivers and those northward will not do so. They will go 75.

Keep a brush/scraper and maybe even a collapsible shovel in your car. Always wear/bring gloves so you can sweep snow off the windows. I don't know what kind of car you drive, but especially if you have a sedan or smaller, consider keeping some water softener salt or bags of kitty litter in your trunk for weight to help with traction. Kitty litter can also help you gain traction if you get stuck (though I personally haven't used it).

HuronBob has good advice for testing things out. You'll learn to steer into a skid and stuff like that.
posted by Madamina at 4:51 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got my first set of snow tires about four years ago, after more than 20 years of driving in Michigan and upstate New York. I never thought I needed them (they came with the used car I bought). It turns out that they make a world of difference and I don't think I'll ever do without them again. It is a pain to store the tires, but if you're buying new tires, many shops offer free storage for your off-season tires. I highly recommend them!
posted by Kriesa at 4:55 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive in the snow by getting a lot of practice, including solo practice in empty parking lots where I could get a good sense of my car's behavior, braking distance, skids and how to correct for them, etc.

A note about the phrase "steer into the skid"--that can sound ambiguous or confusing (which way am I skidding? Which way is "into" the skid?) if you haven't practiced and understand it with your muscle memory. It seems to me that these days, the advice given is more along the lines of "Look in the direction you want to go and very gently steer that way". That avoids a few things: having to consciously think about "what does into the skid mean", which could waste enough time to let the skid spin you too far around; overcorrection, where you jerk the wheel hard; the problem where you look at something you want to avoid (a tree, another car, etc.) and thereby steer yourself right into it.
posted by theatro at 5:01 PM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

One good thing about driving in a place where it snows frequently is that the roads get salted & plowed much more thoroughly and reliably than in the South. So yeah: go extra slow and be careful, but I'll bet you will be surprised at how quickly the roads recover after a storm. I'm in NC now after growing up in the Midwest, and I've been pretty amazed here at how the default response to even the slightest bit of snow is essentially just telling everyone to stay home until it melts. The city will help you out a lot more in places that are used to winter weather.
posted by something something at 5:03 PM on December 8, 2013

You don't absolutely need snow tires, but they do make a huge difference. In a Chicago winter there will be plenty of occasions when you have to drive on slushy or icy pavement. Yes, they clear the snow, but you can't always wait for dry pavement, especially when commuting.

Used to be, snows were awful on dry pavement and couldn't be run fast, but this is no longer true, at least if you get good snows. But they do wear out fast (softer rubber compound for better stickiness) so they are expensive to use.

I grew up in upstate NY and live in Boston, so I've been driving in snow for a long time. It does take a little practice, and the rules for front wheel drive cars are different for rear-wheel (which is where the old "steer into the skid" rule came from).
posted by mr vino at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2013

One thing to keep in mind in addition to stopping and braking is that starting to move again from a standstill will take some effort. If you're on a snow covered street and are stopped, you'll need to gently press on the gas and be prepared for your tires to spin a little before they gain enough traction for you to start moving. Be prepared for when you actually start moving, especially when you are turning from a snow covered street onto a street that is clear. The sudden change in traction can be quite a surprise for the uninitiated.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're going on the expressway for your commute, maybe drive round your neighbourhood a few times to get a feel of things before heading onto whatever big road will take you to the expressway.

Your alley (if you have one) won't be plowed by the city (or at least my mother's wasn't when she lived in Evanston). If you live in an apartment building, your landlord may pay someone to plow it. I recall Evanston being good at getting the streets plowed quickly. (Of course, my most recent point of comparison is to Minneapolis, which plows my street like one time in three.)

Mostly I would just be careful. It takes a lot longer to stop than you think it will. Drive slowly. That's about it really.
posted by hoyland at 5:07 PM on December 8, 2013

One more vote for snow tires - they make winter driving a pleasure, and dramatically reduce the possibility of getting irremediably and irreversibly stuck.
posted by lulu68 at 5:15 PM on December 8, 2013

Moved to Northern Indiana from Australia a few years ago, so learning to drive in snow was a steep learning curve. Things I found helped me is to keep a lot of distance from the car in front, no matter how much you think you need you'll need more. If you hit ice, make sure and head for the curb, I was so used to driving on the other side of the road the first time I hit ice and started sliding I panic steered right into traffic, which was very "exciting" for all concerned.

Drive as slow as you need to to feel safe. The crazy locals won't slow down as much as they should because they are all overconfident, drive at a safe speed. Expressways get awkward as everyone is driving so fast on them, driving slowly can actually be dangerous, but they are usually very well salted and cleared, Chicago knows how to deal with snow. Just keep a large gap and move at the same speed as everyone else. Don't rush traffic lights because the person coming the other way may not have been able to stop, it's always fun to watch cars drift through an intersection.

Keep a good ice scraper and gloves in your car, I found cheap ones a waste of time, keep a small snow shovel in the back of your car too in case you need to dig out to go home. Clear all your windows, and don't forget your lights, even if you are in a hurry don't be one of those people that drive with only a little peephole cleared.

Don't accelerate or brake suddenly if you can avoid it. Keep all your actions smooth.

We don't have snow tires, but having driven a car that does, if you are nervous they do make a noticeable difference.

TL;DR - Drive slowly, don't rush and keep your distance from the car in front.
posted by wwax at 5:17 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a native North Carolinian living in the Midwest now, and the biggest surprise for me was that the roads are actually not consistently plowed up here. They're salted for the most part, which helps with melting, but once a few inches of snow falls, driving conditions feel just as hazardous to me as they did with a day of sleet in Charlotte. Everyone above gives great advice for dealing with this - take it slow in general, slow down before a turn, and the "gentle" word above resonates for sure. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you need to be. If you're lucky enough to live on a road that gets plowed, plan on having to dig out your car (if you park on the street) or the end of your driveway after the road is plowed.

Make sure you have a good scraper/brush combo (my first winter up here I got stuck with just the old CD case I used to scrape off frost, heh) and don't forget to brush off your head and tail lights. This also might be my mom talking, but keep a blanket and water in the car, and take your coat and gloves with you even if you plan to just make a quick trip, just in case something happens and you get stuck.
posted by marmago at 5:18 PM on December 8, 2013

Nthing all the advice above about having a good scraper/brush, clearing off your lights, and testing your car out in a snowy parking lot to give you a sense of how it feels to slide around a bit (and how to avoid doing so). It's also a good idea to check your wiper fluid - before moving to Chicago from FL aaaaages ago, I had a hard time (in FL) finding fluid that stayed liquid in freezing temperatures. With all the salty slush you're going to be getting on your windshield, you'll definitely want usable wiper fluid.

And one piece of advice that has helped me is to imagine I have a full cup of coffee on my dash board, and drive accordingly. Which is just to say pretty much the same thing as others have already said - no sudden starts/stops, go slowly, watch those turns, etc - but visualizing that cup of coffee has always given me a better sense of what to do. Good luck!
posted by DingoMutt at 5:29 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been sitting here trying to think of all the little tips and tricks, but ultimately, they all come down to practice, and probably the most efficient and effective way to get practice is to take a winter driving class. Here's one option offering winter driving classes in Chicago for $90 or $100, if you could swing that.

If you can't, maybe you can find a poorly maintained parking lot or something to practice some of the skidding and braking techniques on icy surfaces, and keep in mind that these things can be kind of unpredictable. You can be tooling along just fine for a while and hit a patch of black ice pretty suddenly, so it's important to stay alert and to know how to regain control if you lose it.

Also, keep some plain clay kitty litter in your car for traction in case you get stuck, in addition to all the other good suggestions here. Be prepared to get out of your car and walk for a mile or two in a blizzard. It probably won't happen, but it could. And even if you never end up needing that stuff, you might run into someone else who does.
posted by ernielundquist at 5:30 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone seems to be giving you tactical advice so here's some strategic advice - if you can at all avoid it, avoid driving when the you're getting a good steady snow fall - particularly if it's during rush hour. Less visibility plus more cars equal more packed snow plus slower moving snow plows plus more things to hit. Four to eight hours after the snow stops it's going to be pretty much back to normal, so if you can wait, you'll escape the worst of it. If the guy who grew up in Chicago advises you to stay off the roads, believe him. Also, it's a good idea to have stuff at work or in your car to facilitate "sheltering in place" if it looks like it's going to be really bad. Get the low temperature winshield washer fluid and top up your reservoir ASAP. Nothing says "So this is it, we're all going to die" quite like having a windshield covered with tiny little salt crystals when you're trying to see where you are going.

One other thing - ice is far worse than snow. Sleet or rain turning into snow is the forecast to watch out for.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:33 PM on December 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

If you start to skid, steer into the skid to regain control.

You will not understand this until you:

The next snow, go find an empty parking lot and spend some time seeing how your car brakes, accelerates, spins, skids, etc, in the snow....
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:38 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Welcome to Evanston!

You will be surprised at how quickly things are cleared up. While the snow is falling things can be a mess and traffic will crawl, but once the streets are plowed, and more importantly salted, you are just dealing with wet roads rather than snowy ones (if there’s a significant fall, say a foot or more, side streets can take a while to be cleared — they sometimes end up as packed snow for a little while).

Chicago is really quick about salting major routes — handling a storm badly cost Mayor Bilandic his job a few decades ago, and ever since Chicago has been very diligent about it. The suburbs, Evanston included, don’t move so fast, and as you cross the border between jurisdictions you will sometimes hit different conditions until everybody catches up, but it’s usually only a matter of a very few hours difference before everything is clear everywhere.

If you are going to be doing a lot of driving, or might be out in more far flung areas that take longer to deal with snow you might need to think differently, but if you are just dealing with the area within 20 miles of home very little of your time will actually be driving in snow.

That said, every now and then there is a big snow and it will take some time to clear it up, and people can become stuck. But they have become quite proactive about warning about such situations and nowadays they tend to err on the side of over warning.

As for actual snow driving tips earlier commenters have pointed you in the right direction.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:40 PM on December 8, 2013

Get up a little earlier than usual and turn on a local news channel. Load up a couple local traffic tabs (your state police may have a traffic site with info about accidents and closures on roads they patrol, if any of those apply to your commutes). If anybody is talking about needing to watch out for black ice, pay close attention, and avoid driving if you can. The best, most experience ice/snow drivers in the world have little in the way of defense against ice that is invisible until you're skidding on it. If icy rain and/or sleet are forecast, consider whether you really need to be driving.
posted by rtha at 5:47 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

TWO ice scrapers with brushes (sometimes the handles break, sometimes one gets lost, sometimes you have a friend to help); they're cheap. Also keep a pair of cheap gloves in the actual glove box in case you get surprised by ice and you have to be out scraping for half an hour and don't have gloves. I have lived in Illinois almost my entire life and STILL end up out places with no gloves, getting snowed on.

Start the car and start the defroster running BEFORE you start scraping, if it's bad, so that you'll be able to see by the time it's time to drive.

Snow in Chicagoland is most likely to shut things down when it falls heavily between 1 and 5 a.m. If it falls earlier than that, the plows have a chance to get it cleared before the morning commute; later than 5 a.m. and not enough is on the ground to stop the morning commute. It's most DANGEROUS when it starts coming down heavily or icily right before the EVENING commute, because it gets dark and there are a lot of cars on the road in the wet.

Sedans, having a low center of gravity, are generally a little easier to control when it's slippery and safer than minivans or SUVs.

If it's snowed heavily, knock the snow off the hood of your car so it doesn't blow up into your windshield while you drive. Knock it off the TOP of your car for the sake of drivers behind you (you'll see what I mean the first time there's 3 inches of snow and you're behind some idiot who didn't -- it flies off in startling, view-obscuring chunks or in blinding localized snowstorms). You don't have to do it perfectly, just sweep your arm or scraper over it once so there's not as much.

Avoid Lake Shore Drive during windy snow or cold rain if you can; the lake WILL come up high enough to ice the Drive in places.

Put into your phone now the phone numbers of a tow company, a cab company, and the state and local police non-emergency, in case you get stranded. IDOT patrols the Chicago expressways with "minutemen" who are state transit employees that will come pull you out of a ditch on the expressway if you slide into one. Even people who've been driving Chicago winters for 20 years sometimes do.

This site gives you pretty good ideas of how bad the highways are, which helps you know how bad the local roads might be.

Here is Evanston's snow routes map. Snow routes are plowed first. Every city and suburb in Illinois will have a similar plan, which will map out snow routes and sometimes secondary and tertiary streets, the order in which they are plowed and salted. If the snow is bad, plan your route by the snow routes map. If the snow is very heavy, they will just work on keeping the primary routes clear and not plow the secondary or tertiary at all until it stops. (Cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets are typically plowed last; streets with fire departments and hospitals get plowed first.)

DO NOT PARK ON THE STREET DURING SNOW if you're on a snow route. It's an expensive ticket. More expensive if you get towed.

If you have a desk-type job: when the snow is predicted to be particularly heavy or bad for commuting, my husband brings work home with him the day before, just in case he decides he'd rather not drive. Most employers will also let you knock off early if the evening commute is set to be particularly bad.

The far more common problem than sliding off the road is car batteries dying in the cold, so make sure your battery's in good shape, especially if you park outdoors. (Garaged cars are more likely to start in the cold.) Also check your car's wiper fluid; snow is hella dirty and sometimes you get the windshield all cleaned off, start driving, and 10 minutes later you can't see a damn thing because of snow-mud on the windshield.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:48 PM on December 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

One other thing - DO NOT - DO NOT - DO NOT! throw a big bucket of hot water on an icy windshield to melt the ice. The thermal shock can break the window.

On a really miserable day when there is a lot of ice on the windows, start your car and immediately turn on the defrosters and then start cleaning the windows, side windows first. As the car warms up it will be get easier to remove the ice on the windshield and then you'll be getting into a relatively warm car.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:53 PM on December 8, 2013

Also, PS, snow and ice in North Carolina are scary because HILLS. Chicago has no hills. You can't really fall DOWN things. Also all the roads are straight lines. My experience of driving in snow in North Carolina (grad school) was that you're on hugely busy 2-lane no-shoulder roads that used to be country roads and nobody has informed NCDOT that they're now city roads and need to be upgraded accordingly, careening around blind curves so your car keeps going straight when the road curves and it's icy, down a damn hill, surrounded by people in SUVs who have never seen frozen water falling from the sky before.

In comparison Chicago is blessedly flat, straight, and urban, and a much larger percentage of your fellow drivers know how to drive in snow. You'll see what I mean; just the "flat and straight" makes a big difference when it snows compared to all the hills and curves in North Carolina. I've been driving in Chicago snows since I was 15 and North Carolina snow makes me NERVOUS.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:58 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Go get some snow tires. Why wouldn't you?
posted by oceanjesse at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2013

Snow tires are lovely. Your reasonably good quality scraper should never leave your car. It's best if it isn't in your trunk in the winter (leave it there in the summer so you don't forget it before the first big snow); sometimes they get iced shut. The advice about turning on the car to heat it from the inside is dead on. Also it can be convenient to have a shovel in the car, depending on how much snow you are likely to have, in case you need to dig out a snowbank.

Whatever you do and however bad the temptation gets, never ever clean off the ice inside of your windshield with your bare hands. The temptation is very extreme. Resist.
posted by jeather at 6:37 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Others have said this above, but I want to repeat it because it's important and so often overlooked by new winter drivers: don't miss the important areas when clearing off your car. Do a thorough job.

Clear the WHOLE windshield, not just a portal to peer through. It should be as clear as you can get it; you need to see through the entire width and the wipers need to be clear to do their thing if something blows more snow/sleet onto your car while you're driving. Don't just clear a little hole in the rear window either; it needs to be clean all the way across too. Besides, it's usually easier than the front windshield and usually has a more effective defroster to take care of little frost streaks for you.

Clear the front left and front right windows; a few streaks of frost are okay here but make sure you can see the mirrors and can see through well enough to look left and right for oncoming traffic and pedestrians before turning.

Clear your headlights, your tail lights, and turn signals so the people ahead of you can see you coming and those behind you can see you braking and signalling.

Clear off the snow from the hood, roof, and trunk so it doesn't blow all over your windshield, back window, and tail lights as soon as you get the car up to speed. You don't have to scrape the ice off these, but if there's a buildup of snow, clear it off. I know you're cold and late, but clear it off anyway; it's a safety hazard.

While you're at it, see if you can kick out most of the snow from the wheel wells. It's not as critical as the above items but you'll get better traction if the tires aren't spending their first couple of hundred yards bailing snow out of there.

You can always tell an inexperienced winter driver because their car looks like it's still in a snowbank and they've only cleared a little circle and left the rest for the defrosters to work on. Everyone gives them a wide berth because it's clear they are completely oblivious in their little frozen bubble they're carrying around. Sometimes the combination of the car heating up and driving at city speeds will finish clearing off a car in about twenty minutes, but until then these people are a menace on the roads. Don't be one of those drivers. (apologies for sounding like my dad during driving lessons)
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:45 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Eyebrows McGee: "Start the car and start the defroster running BEFORE you start scraping, if it's bad, so that you'll be able to see by the time it's time to drive."

Also there is a certain amount of technique to scraping but a key thing is to not scrape into the vents at the base of the windshield. Those vents feed the air intake for your defrost and A/C and if your scrapings go into them they'll blow up on your windshield on the inside frosting it over.
posted by Mitheral at 6:48 PM on December 8, 2013

Just like to add, be especially careful at intersections- braking, turning and taking off. Previous cars braking and spinning tires will pack the snow and/or turn it to ice.

I also splurge for the purple windshield washer fluid; the blue is more likely to freeze up when it turns really cold.
posted by coldhotel at 7:13 PM on December 8, 2013

Another word on windscreen washers. The jets the water squirts out of can also freeze, even if you use winter washer fluid. The fluid in the reservoir will stay liquid but the residual in the washer jets sometimes freezes. So be prepared for the washers not to work for the first 10-15 minutes on occasion whilst the jets defrost.

Also, realise you will go through A LOT of washer fluid all winter. So keep some in the boot so you can top up easily when you run out.

Finally, salty, dirty, water splashes up not just on parts reached by your washers but also your headlights etc. I used to make sure I brought out a squirty bottle with warm water walking out to the car every now and then to wash off the gunk.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:00 PM on December 8, 2013

If your car's windshield wiper arms are stable in the raised position, raise them when you park, if snow or ice is expected later. It's easier than getting them iced in and trying to chip them out. It also looks delightfully silly.

Many folks have pointed out the need to clear the windshield well. This applies to the part beyond the wipers, too, since if they're coming down against a snowbank in the wiper-park position, it'll at least trap crud under the blades, and possibly also stress the mechanism.

If your car doesn't have TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system), check your tire pressure regularly, or at least get used to walking around and looking at the tires while you clear the windows. The weird feeling of driving on snow can mask the weird feeling of driving with a flat, and driving on a flat for a while can turn a $5 puncture repair into a $120 tire replacement. (Learned that one the hard way!)

Also, it's a good idea to check and adjust your tire pressure whenever the temperature changes a lot. A few PSI can make a big difference in handling even if they're not visibly low.

You'll be tempted to use the recirculate setting on your HVAC controls to keep the heated air in the car, but moisture from your breath will quickly begin to condense on the interior glass surfaces. Use the defrost setting to scare it off, and leave the intake set to fresh-air to keep it from happening again.
posted by Myself at 8:03 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think I saw this one: If its messy out and you're moving into cross traffic (or sometimes oncoming) traffic from a standstill, wait for a larger gap in traffic than you normally would to ensure you have time to finish the turn or crossing even if you have to accelerate super slowly to avoid spinning your tires.
posted by zizania at 8:07 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Avoid Skokie if you can! I have been here a few years but I still get very stressed when there is snow and slush on the road. My commute takes me through Skokie and though they may have improved, they were much slower to clear main roads than Evanston last year. Ugh!

Don't be bullied into driving faster than you are comfortable driving.
(You'll be fine!)
posted by Glinn at 8:15 PM on December 8, 2013

nthing what everyone about the windshield wiper fluid. You'll need it. Also, when the snow starts building up, some people will save their dug-out parking space with a chair. Maybe Evanston is different, though.
posted by hooray at 10:03 PM on December 8, 2013

Yes, driving in the snow is basically an exercise in Newtonian mechanics. The ideas that an object at rest will tend to stay at rest and that an object in motion will tend to stay in motion are definitely at play. So wait until there's a bigger gap in traffic than usual to turn because it'll take longer to get started, keep slow during the turn, try to avoid unnecessary deviations from a straight path (too many or too sudden stops, lane changes, turns. etc.). Nthing the advice about going to a sufficiently large, empty, snowy parking lot and feeling what it's like to actually skid and what to do about it.

Make sure you know how your brakes work. With most modern cars and anti-lock brake systems, you want to brake steadily while the ABS does its thing. (With older cars you'd be advised to pump the brake on and off, so it's important to know which you have.) Be aware that you can't always see the ice and not to get complacent, especially once winter's really taken hold and people are back to driving crazy speeds. I pretty much always assume that people aren't going to be able to stop at the intersection, or that they might not turn even if they're signaling that they will...just in case.

Leave yourself significant wiggle room in estimating how long it will take to get places, in case something comes up. It's better than being in a hurry and stressed out and maybe driving recklessly for the conditions. Remember to factor in snow-clearing/ice-scraping time, perhaps car-starting time (they don't always start right away if it's super cold), perhaps snow-shoveling time, in addition to the extra time to drive.

We got something like three feet of snow overnight during an especially bad blizzard a few years ago (it might have been my first winter here?) and I started shoveling out my car an hour and a half before I normally would leave for work. When I was still shoveling (and getting my car stuck in the drifts I just made from the cleared snow, and breaking the snow shovel, and moving it a few inches just to get it stuck again, and so on) by a little before work was supposed to begin, I called in again to say that I'd be a little late. They--mostly lifelong Midwesterners and tough-it-out types--asked me if I was in a safe location (I hadn't been able to make it out of my driveway) and said if I was, to stay put, it was better than having to be rescued later. It was fine that I couldn't come in to work for the midnight shift because the evening crew couldn't leave, either, so they were well-staffed!

It might be good to have a little emergency kit you keep in the car, just in case. I have an old sleeping bag or sometimes an old coat, a snow shovel, some granola bars, a flashlight, one of those space blankets. Bottled water is good if you can make sure it won't burst if/when it freezes. Some kitty litter, as mentioned above, and maybe some of those instant handwarmers might be nice.

Get an ice scraper with a good handle and a brush on it, not just those little spatula ones that are just a small scraper. If you're short, it's worth it to get the "extended reach" one, otherwise you end up with a snow mohawk on your car (which will blow into everyone else's windshield). By the way, it's a good idea to keep an ice scraper outside your car, for those occasions when your car is actually trapped inside a block of ice and you have no way to scrape your way into the car in order to get out your ice scraper. (Ask me how I know!)

I bought one of these (although mine was more like $5 or $6 at Wal*Mart, I think) on a whim when I first got out here, and they're great! Significantly reduces the time and effort of clearing your front windshield. The suction cups don't work all that well, but it stays on. You basically wrap it snugly over your windshield and slam the doors on it. They also have ones with elastic straps which fit over the side mirrors instead but I think the door-slam version, while more of a pain to put on, stays put better and is less likely to blow away or get stolen. It's annoying to put it on at night when I want to go inside but I'm always glad I did in the morning, if it snowed overnight. I've also seen these little magnets you can put over the keyhole to keep ice from forming in it, but I haven't tried them.

Good luck! Just pay attention and you'll be fine. Oh, and it's a good idea to make sure you wash your car once in awhile, including the undercarriage, to keep down salt corrosion. You'll see it a lot on cars around here--all that rusty eaten-away looking part in tell-tale places like a little behind the wheels where salty slush constantly sprays. You'll see color change on your shoes, too, if you don't keep them protected/wiped down.
posted by spelunkingplato at 11:02 PM on December 8, 2013

Avoid sudden movements--either steering or braking. That way skidding lies. When you practice in the empty parking lot, you'll see this right away.

Never, never let anyone bully you into doing something you don't feel comfortable doing. If you're trying to make a left turn and the asshole behind is honking at you, ignore him. He'll quickly get over it. But you won't if you slide into the ditch. Same goes with making yellow lights, changing lanes, etc.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:50 AM on December 9, 2013

First thing is to get a good snow brush and shovel. You may not need them often, but you'll be glad to have them when you do!

Clean all the snow off your car, end-to-end and top-to-bottom. Begin by starting your engine and your defrosters; close the car doors and start removing all the snow. What the heck, you've got time while the engine warms up anyway, so use that time to increase your safety margin.
*Don't just use your windshield wipers to dig a viewing hole through the snow: use a snow brush to get all the snow off all your windows all the way around: front, both sides and back.
*Clear off all the snow on the front of your car, so the snow on your hood doesn't blow onto your windshield as you're driving. Clear off all the snow on your roof and trunk, so it doesn't blow onto the windshield of the guy driving behind you --- because not only do you want to see everyone else, you want them to be able to see you too, right?!? Brush off your bumpers too, for the same reasons.
*Clear off all ice and snow on your headlights and taillights, too: again, the goal is to increase visibility, both so you can see them and they can see you.
*Drive as slow as you need to. Take your time (this includes leaving earlier than usual), don't make sudden moves, leave more space between cars than usual. Don't worry if the people around you are going faster than you feel comfortable or safe doing: your goal is very, very simple: Arrive Alive. And remember, getting someplace 'late' or 'slow' is way better than 'never'.

And one thing I do that people laugh at me for, until it snows and they need to go clean off their cars: I bring the snow brush inside with me. Yeah, it looks silly, carrying my 3-foot-long snow brush (with the extendable handle!) in to work with me, but I hate sitting on a cold wet car seat: if the brush is in the car, I have to open the doors --- which drops snow onto the seats --- to get out the brush; if I have the brush outside the car, I can clean off some of the snow from around the door before opening it to start the engine..... voila: dry car seat. As I say, people laugh at me, until they're sitting on their own cold wet car seats.....
posted by easily confused at 5:19 AM on December 9, 2013

Grew up and learned to drive in the Chicago suburbs. Easy on the brake, easy on the gas. That's all there is to it.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:55 AM on December 9, 2013

Response by poster: I really appreciate the helpful advice that everybody has given me! I would almost certainly have completely forgotten anything about windshield wiper fluid until it was far too late. Your advice has saved me a long and terror filled drive.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:03 AM on December 9, 2013

As a Virginian in a state neighboring Illinois, and who definitely did not get a lot of practice growing up routinely driving in snow/ice, I can't approve enough the suggestions above of finding someplace where you can learn to feel and respond to when your vehicle skids. Getting that experience is the thin line between freaking out and keeping the nerves calm when driving on a snow or ice covered road.

A second lesson, which may or may not apply due to Chicago's snow plowing ability, is to beware the major routes/intersections when the plows have fallen behind clearing the amount of snow coming down. They will be the busiest and thus, have the higher number of people likely to get stuck or do something stupid. This results in back ups and being trapped repeatedly in traffic. In a perfect world, try and find the secondary (as in, major, but not the most popular) routes.

Finally, if the forecast is calling for X inches of snow, and you have no good assurances the local powers of snow annihilation cannot handle it and keep the world safe, just stay home. It might cost you a sick day or leave, but it will safe you hours of stress, fear and frustration - a very good payoff.

p.s. In terms of snow removing gear, you might hunt down a foam snow broom (like this one). My mom gave me one, to which I politely accepted because I thought it looked crazy, but they do an excellent job of making heavy snow removal from a vehicle quick and for far less work than the usual brush attached to a scraper.
posted by Atreides at 11:19 AM on December 9, 2013

Easily confused, I think that is a great idea of not keeping the snowbrush in the car. My own solution is to keep it in the trunk, so I also don't have to open the actual car part. (I also keep two, with another in the car, in case the trunk freezes shut). Just wanted to throw that out there if there comes a day where you can't bring it inside :)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 5:43 AM on December 11, 2013

You can solve the "getting snow on your seat when you open the door" problem by opening the passenger door to get out the scraper or just wiping off a small amount of snow with your arm if all seats have passengers.

I say this as a person who would never remember to bring my scraper back with me if it didn't live in my car.
posted by jeather at 6:12 AM on December 11, 2013

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