Driver’s Tips: How to Stay Ahead of the Rain and Snow Behind the Wheel

September 18, 2013 by V.R.M. - No Comments

Summer appears to be almost over–and I say “almost” because the last four months have been an exercise in patience when it comes to clothing and tire choices. We’ve had torrential rain, flooding, some drought, 50-degree summer days in July and 98-degree summer days in September.

I am quite certain that our car’s mood improved as the snows began to melt in May and the temperatures rose above 40 degrees. This was true for me because I no longer had to stuff myself in the driver seat wearing several layers of wool and feathers, cranking up the seat heater to 6. As for the Audi, it  no longer had to tiptoe around slushy snow, which the PSAS3 tires didn’t really like.

Once the snow melted and the torrential rains started, I felt comfortable pushing the car again. A friend recently asked me how I was liking the all-season PSAS3s. The question came on a day when it was raining cats and dogs, and there were puddles from melting snow everywhere. “Those tires,” I replied, “have me looking for puddles.” This is the honest truth. The PSAS3s are so fantastic on in the rain that when I see a puddle, I deliberately head toward it just so I can experience the tire managing the water.* I don’t think I have ever driven on such a confidence-inspiring tires when it comes to standing water. Normally, when your car hits a puddle, you can feel the vehicle pull as the tire struggles to retain grip. With the PSAS3s, the car remains on track, allowing me to maintain more speed (and confidence) behind the wheel in wet driving conditions.

I realize most drivers do not share my love of driving in rainy conditions, and feel generally uneasy (if not frightened) of rain on the roads. This unease stems not only from decreased visibility, but from discomfort with how differently the car feels and  lack of experience with car control. Let’s change that! Below, we offer our tips on how to make driving in rain or snow safer and more enjoyable.

Driving in winter can be fun, especially if you practice (photo courtesy of PCNA)

Driving in winter can be fun, especially if you practice (photo courtesy of PCNA)

Tip 1: Look ahead / think ahead. It’s always good practice to look ahead when you drive, but it is essential to do so in inclement conditions. When you drive in dry, normal conditions, practice looking past the car right in front of you. Is the car five spots ahead braking? Is there a car stopped on the right lane coming up? The more you look ahead (and around), the less surprises you’ll get on the road, and the more time you’ll have to think about an appropriate response. A few years ago, my husband was able to move to the shoulder and avoid a massive highway accident because he was looking way ahead at the traffic and noticed cars coming to a hard stop ahead. Looking ahead saved his car, and perhaps his life. When the weather turns foul, look ahead, focus on driving, and nothing else.

Tip 2: Use gentle inputs on the gas, brakes, and steering wheel. Stabbing the brake pedal / throttle or yanking the wheel is never a good thing to do in the car, but in rain or snow, it can have devastating consequences. Harsh inputs unsettle the car, and if you are already dealing with limited grip, you’re asking for trouble. When driving in rain or snow, if you accelerate more gently, you will get going better (especially if you’re driving a front-wheel drive car, where wheel spin will induce the traction control to kick in, which always slows you down). Brake sooner, and do so gently; slamming on the brakes is sure to make your tires loose grip faster and set of your car’s ABS (which won’t hurt the car, but can feel unsettling). The best part of all this driving in rain and snow? More gentle inputs in rain and snow will make you a better driver all around, because by treating the throttle and brake more gently, your car will be more stable.

Tip 3: Practice, practice, practice. Would you dream of joining a hockey team without ever working on your ice skating? Of course not. Yet, so many of us get behind the wheel of cars while it rains and snows while never having taken the time to experience the car being out of control in such conditions.  Next time it’s pouring or snowing, do yourself a favor: drive to an empty, safe area (no people/trees/light posts/other cars in the way, please. Please follow all posted signs. No trespassing. Safety first!) and experience what your car feels like under such conditions. Accelerate hard and brake hard. Feel the car slide. Now try using gentle inputs and see if the car feels better under you. The more you practice, the less scary driving in inclement weather can become.

Become a better driver: participate in a driving school such as Tire Rack’s Street Survival or a car control clinic. (Need guidance on where to go? Email Bill Wade, Street Survival’s national program director and all-around nice guy).

An ultra high-performance tire is designed for speed, not water management.

An ultra high-performance tire is designed for speed, so it offers less water-managing tread and sipes.

Tip 4: Don’t drive on tires lacking enough tread (aka, “bald” tires). In tire speak, bald is bad. A car wearing bald tires won’t brake as well as one with fresh tires. The tread’s job is to move water away from the surface so the car can maintain contact with the road. When you drive on low-tread tires and add water or slush to the mix, there is an extra layer between your car and the road. Driving on bald tires over puddles can lead to aquaplaning, which means you will have little or no control over the direction in which your car is traveling. Have you ever aquaplaned? You can turn the wheel all you want, but the car won’t obey you, because the tire is not making contact with the road. Even race car drivers switch to rain tires when it rains – do the same. Driving on bald tires is a sure recipe for accidents.

 Not sure if your tires are bald? Use this nifty tool from Michelin to determine your tire’s wear.

If it still has tires from 1998 on, it's time for a fresh set.

If it still has tires from 1998 on, it’s time for a fresh set.

Tip 5: Don’t drive on old tires, either. If you inherited Grandpa’s 1998 Toyota Avalon, and it came with the same tires he put on the car in 2000, you need new tires.  Never mind that Grandpa only drove it 5,000 miles: rubber is a natural material and it degrades and hardens. The harder a material, the less grip on the road it provides.

What to do with you old tires? Recycle!  You can have 1-800-GOT-JUNK do it for you, or you can leave them at Discount Tire after you get a new set.

Tip 6: Don’t drive on the wrong season tire. This tip only applies to places with four seasons, but it’s worth a mention. All-season tires really are three-season tires. Driving on all-season tires (especially high-performance ones) during a proper Midwestern winter will teach you the kind of lesson you don’t want to learn. I realize the idea of owning two sets of tires for your car may seem excessive, not just because of the cost of the tires, but the hassle of having them swapped each year. Instead of attempting to convince you that owning winter tires is worth the money and hassle, I’ll share two stories with you.

In 2009, I leased a manual Mazda 3, which was a blast to drive. It came with all-season tires. Because the car was leased, I figured I would not buy it winter tires. Instead, I would rely on my driving skills to get around during the three months (okay, five months) of Michigan winter. My opinion quickly changed one morning when I set off to work at 7 am. There were about two inches of snow on the ground and as I made my way out of my neighborhood, I slid past a downhill 4-way stop like Santa being pulled by his reindeer. No one got hurt, thankfully. But I realized that no amount of thinking ahead, careful braking, and smooth accelerating would save me from an all-season tire that was just not equipped to mitigate the snow underneath it. I bought a set of winter tires (albeit cheap ones) the next day and the subsequent winters were much, much more manageable AND safer.

An all-season tire has lots of sipes to maintain grip in all sorts of conditions.

An all-season tire is made from a special compound and has lots of sipes and plenty of tread to help maintain grip in all sorts of conditions.

Our second story involves the 365 Days of PSAS3 “experiment” we have been on this year. After receiving a set of Pilot Sport A/S 3s, we decided to put them on our Audi A4 Avant (replacing the Contis that came with the car) in January, right in the middle of winter. The PSAS3s had impressed me when I first drove them at NOLA; we knew they would handle the rain beautifully, but  had no idea how they would be in the snow.  Our goal was to see how this very capable all-season tire would do in Michigan’s snowy winter.  We quickly realized that even with Audi’s Quattro working and with this superior tire on, we still had to think ahead when driving on all-seasons in winter.  The cold temperatures were no problem for the tire,  but anytime there was snow or slush on the ground, I had to slow down considerably before every turn and stop sign in order to avoid sliding. And even with all this care, my husband (who is a certified performance driving instructor and one of the safest and smoothest drivers out there, IMHO) managed to slide onto a curb while testing the tire’s limit on one snowy morning.

Being a good driver will only get you so far if you are on the wrong tire in winter. Driving on the right tire is a question of safety, not excess. It is possible to find affordable winter tires — start here.

Tip 5: Choose the best tire you can afford for your car. Until I drove my cars wearing different tires made by different manufacturers, I had no idea just how much a good tire could change how your car responds. Before you buy new tires for your car, take a moment to research just how well the tire stops in both dry and wet conditions. If all the data seems daunting, ask the guys at Discount Tire, visit The Tire Rack or ask your friends who love cars to help.

Do you have tips of your own for safer rain and snow driving? Tell us!

* Disclaimer: we do not recommend that you engage in dangerous behavior behind the wheel. You should drive within your limits at all times, and seek the assistance of a certified driving instructor if you wish to become a safer, more confident driver in all conditions. Have fun behind the wheel and stay safe this winter!