Winter Driving in New England
December 23, 2017 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts next week, driving from Philadelphia. I'm nervous/not experienced at winter driving and am generally terrified of skidding/having my brakes lock (I don't have ABS or snow tires). What can I expect *highways* to be like both if there's some kind of small snowstorm AND if there's not specifically a snowstorm but just transient bits of precipitation/snow showers at below-freezing temperatures? Do major highways get slippery or icy?
posted by needs more cowbell to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Also I would generally really like to become more confident/comfortable at winter driving, but I'm just not at this point. I have heard suggestions of taking winter driving classes, but I haven't found any near me.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:02 AM on December 23, 2017

I studied this a lot when I was in Vermont and learned a lot about how they treat roads. I have an AWD car with snows. However a front wheel drive with decent tires (i.e. good tread, in good repair) is usually fine as long as you respect road conditions. My general feels:

- Snow is slippery but it takes a while to accumulate. If it's close to freezing (i.e. in 30s) often it won't really accumulate on the highways much at all for a short storm.
- Freezing rain is dangerous and is basically the "stay home" alarm, as is "wintry mix" in my opinion
- Extended snowfall can be not so great but basically highways get plowed and sanded/salted regularly, moreso during "commuting time" and less so in the middle of the night. Salt is good until about 20 degrees F, so it basically buys you some temperature range where the roads will be slushy and not as freezy. This is still not great traction-wise but a really different animal than roads full fo snow.

The 511 websites can give you an idea of road conditions, This is the one for MA, they tend to be state by state.

Best advice: drive during the day, drive at a speed that feels safe, you'll have better visibility not driving right behind trucks or other cars that toss up a lot of road ice/salt/snow, stay in the travelled lane (usually the right), make sure your winshield fluids are full up, have AAA handy and a blanket and some emergency stuff in the car just in case. Be ready to call it off if roads are totally shit. Keep an eye on forecasts and try to be flexible.

Remember, your anxiety is going to be one of the major hurdles you'll be managing as well as all the other road condition stuff, so keep yourself in good shape as you plan for this trip.
posted by jessamyn at 7:07 AM on December 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

-Drive slowly, break gently.
-If you start to skid, VERY gently steer your car where you want it to go. Do not turn the steering wheel hard or hit the breaks. That's how you spin out. Just keep gently steering.
-If the roads are icy or slippery, hit your breaks EARLY if you know you need to stop (like if you're approaching an intersection). Your car may slide; its ok. Go slow, break gently and early, and you should be fine once you approach the intersection.

The roads are typically fine. They get slushy fast and they get cleaned up fast. Just remember to drive slowly and break gently and you'll be fine.
posted by Amy93 at 7:21 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. Currently the forecast for when I'd be traveling is in the 15-20 degrees range, but with only one instance of "snow showers" predicted - is that something that's likely to make slippery patches? I guess I'm not sure how fallen snow on the highways interacts with traffic when it's super cold, whether it gets compacted into ice/slippery patches by the traffic or what.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:23 AM on December 23, 2017

Unless there's going to be heavy snow the roads should be clear. I think of snow showers as flurries, which typically cause no problems at all. I'd really try not to worry about this. If there's going to be heavier snow, they'll make it abundantly clear.

If you don't have the weather channel app, download it. It includes road conditions.
posted by Amy93 at 7:29 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Super cold with bare roads is usually okay. Watch for black ice especially in weird shady areas (i.e. if you're on back roads with a lot of trees, sometimes snow can fall off of trees on to the roads). If there's been any significant snowfall it usually gets plowed/salted out of existence with sand (grit) put on the roads for good measure, so don't really worry abotu "yesterday's snow" for instance. Check those traffic cams for ideas about road conditions. Google Traffic can also show you how fast cars are moving which can give you a good idea on what the road is like.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on December 23, 2017

In general, most major roads are taken care of.

I think that the key is to drive slow and steady. Keep your momentum. Try to avoid to anything quickly. If you are changing lanes, do it slow/steady/gradual. You will start to get the feel of it and it should be instinctual. I would stay out of the passing lane. If you are driving really slowly compared to others, you may want to put you hazards on.

Good Luck!!!!
posted by kbbbo at 7:37 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Boston-area driver here. You've gotten perfect advice and I want to add that on the highway, avoid the lanes that slope slightly (usually furthest left or right) because that's where you can encounter black ice.

I generally try to travel in the middle lanes. You may encounter daredevils rocketing up behind you; in nasty conditions, it's fine to slowly move over to let them pass.

Remember, no brake slamming.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:41 AM on December 23, 2017

In New England, roads are generally cleared within 12 hours after a snowfall with accumulation. Usually sooner, certainly in towns. Main roads are plowed and sanded frequently during a storm. Interstates are very well plowed. Basically, if towns have had a chance to clear the roads, drive with extra caution because there will be crummy patches, but you should be okay.

Snow tires matter a lot. All-weather tires are okay. If you're visiting someone way out in the country, be prepared to take it easy, and if you are having trouble, find someplace to pull off the road. Get some sand (gritty clay cat litter), put a shovel in the car, and if you have a crappy old blanket(burlap bags are good, piece of old rug) to use for traction, bring it. Throw some bottled water in the car, granola bars, ice scraper. Keep your mobile phone charged and keep the gas tank above 1/4 or so and fill the windshield washer. The typical unpleasant scenario is being stuck in traffic for a while if there's an accident ahead of you on an Interstate.

Listen to local radio reports or call a friend to look up road conditions on the Internet. Ice, freezing rain, wintry mix (snow, sleet, rain, really nasty) are probably a pull off the road until salt/sand trucks are out deal. If snow is accumulating on roads, slow down. The person behind you with 4WD and studded snow tires may be irritated, and feel free to let them pass if you can, but speed gets you into trouble, and fast, too. Don't tailgate and if someone is tailgating you, slow down, it's unsafe.

I learned to drive in snow and ice, and taught my son, by going to a big empty parking lot and intentionally skidding, spinning, swerving, etc. Accelerate, brake, oversteer, etc. We did this in high school because it was fun, but it also taught me not to freak out, and how to steer out of skids. Here are some useful sites.
posted by theora55 at 8:09 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm also nervous about driving in snow. Last winter I went to a big empty parking lot and drove in circles, deliberately trying to skid. I found it reassuring to get a feel for what it would take to cause the car to slide.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:10 AM on December 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

In addition to all this very safe advice, here's another resource.

For local weather, Dave Hayes the Weather Nut is your source. I usually use his Facebook page.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:19 AM on December 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Just popped in here to concur with the corpse in the library. Find a parking lot that's empty - schools, right now; or non-24-hours grocery stores at night. Do donuts. Drive like an asshole and learn how your car acts in the snow.
posted by notsnot at 8:55 AM on December 23, 2017

Well, yesterday in northern MA, the roads got progressively worse all day and late into the night. That included major highways, and especially on- and off-ramps. I don't know why the road crews weren't on top of the situation, but they definitely were not. The day started with light snow and went to freezing rain, which kept up until after I got home. At Midnight, the roads had been dangerously slick for at least 4 hours.

"Snow showers" are not always just flurries, sometimes they'll add an inch of snow to the ground. I use the National Weather Service site for forecasts and have seen that result after a "snow showers" prediction many times.

The important idea behind winter driving is to avoid any sort of sudden change in control inputs. Do everything gently. No heavy braking. No sharp steering. No hard acceleration. No fast speeds, which produce large steering forces and can require sudden braking. The safest thing to do if you encounter more snow than you're used to is to get off the road. Resign yourself to being late to your destination. Stop at a restaurant for a meal, or even a motel for the night. If you go off the road or slide into another car or a tree, you're going to be even later.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:59 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you watch the weather reports and take major highways like the NY Thruway to the Mass Pike to get there, or Route 91 depending where in Western Mass you're going, you should be fine. Those roads tend to be clear except at the height of blizzards.
posted by beagle at 9:01 AM on December 23, 2017

Seconding Dave Hayes the Weather Nut for Western Mass weather info. He and many of his fans are very responsive on Facebook, so you could even ask about road conditions in specific areas on one of that day's posts.
posted by camyram at 10:01 AM on December 23, 2017

"What can I expect *highways* to be like both if there's some kind of small snowstorm AND if there's not specifically a snowstorm but just transient bits of precipitation/snow showers at below-freezing temperatures?"

Honestly, if you're driving during daylight hours, I don't think a small snowstorm and/or transient bits of precipitation will make hardly any difference on the highways because they'll have been salted and sanded or cindered. I expect that you'll find, in fact, that the highways will be mostly dry.

"Do major highways get slippery or icy?" Sure, but usually one of the following is in play: it's after dark, the temps are plunging, and the snow that's melted on the highway is refreezing into ice; there's a quickly or substantially accumulating snow storm (and the weather folks will tell you when it's bad enough to stay off the roads); there's freezing rain or sleet -- and that's when I, personally, full stop avoid traveling.

Everyone here has it right: Take it slow and easy. Watch how others are driving, keeping an eye out for whether or not they're slipping and sliding. Make sure there's a lot of space between you and the cars in front of you/around you in case they start to slide and you need to stop or you start to slide and need to stop. If there are no cars nearby, lightly tap your breaks to gauge how slick the road is. Meanwhile, don't stress out if some jerk gets on your tail -- just let them pass (I wouldn't even pull over into another lane, if it were me). There's no need to rush, even if conditions are deteriorating. You drive the way you feel is safest and let other drivers do their thing.

I've maneuvered some real clunkers on steep mountain roads through more snow and ice than you would believe just by taking my time, staying calm, driving real gentle, and being patient. Oh: And you should make sure your cell phone is charged before you hit the road and that you have a flashlight and some winter gear handy (like a warm coat, gloves, a hat, and shoes or boots for walking around -- a blanket, bottle of water, and a snack wouldn't hurt to have on hand, either). That way, just in case something goes wrong, you won't freeze while figuring out what happens next.
posted by pinkacademic at 10:42 AM on December 23, 2017

This is basically a reiteration of everyone else's advice to take it slow and be gentle with turns and breaking, but when I was moving from Florida (where I'd learned to drive) up to Chicago ... in January ... the most useful advice I got was to drive as if I had a full cup of coffee on my dashboard. Somehow that mental image gave me what I needed to figure out just how slow and gentle I needed to be, and to remember that it was largely about avoiding suddenness if at all possible.

And nthing the suggestion to find a snowy, empty parking lot and deliberately going into some skids to get a feel for it. Good luck and be safe!
posted by DingoMutt at 11:25 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

One tiny thing to add: On any kind of road, bridges can be icy when the roads on each end are dry. So pay a little extra attention in those spots.
posted by lakeroon at 9:22 PM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Did anyone mention windshield scrapers? Get one; they're cheap. Consider getting a small shovel. There are alternatives that you may have in the car already, but they don't work as well.

If it's snowing or your windows start to fog up, use your defroster. Keep your vents open. (Some cars won't let you close them when the defroster is on.)

If you can't get moving because your wheels spin, clear snow from in front of all the tires, and put floor mats under the front edge of the driving wheels. Apply gas gently; spinning the wheels harder doesn't help you move, and usually digs holes you'll have to dig out of. Once you've got out onto a surface you can drive on, stop and retrieve the mats.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:14 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

The roads in the Northeast are basically fine within 12 hours after anything but a major bilzzard or a freezing rain event. Freezing rain is such a problem because you can't really do anything about it. If you put down sand, you just have a layer of ice on top of the sand or it gets swept out of the way.

The nice thing about freezing rain is that it can only happen very close to 32F/0C at the surface. If it's much colder you get ice pellets, sleet, or snow depending on the temperatures higher in the atmosphere. That means it almost never happens that far north especially this far into the cold part of the year.

Point being, unless there is freezing rain you will be fine if you drive with care and have some stuff to keep warm for a few hours in an emergency that probably won't happen unless there is a blizzard in progress. I'd hope you'd choose to stay off the road in either of those scenarios.
posted by wierdo at 1:27 PM on December 26, 2017

« Older Wordsmith help with holiday greetings requested   |   I Want To Take My Girl To See Classical Piano in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.