Winter Driving

Traveling on Montana's winter roads can be treacherous. Take precautions to ensure the safety of you, your passengers and others on the road.

In Montana, winter driving can be a nightmare. Black ice, snow, and blizzards can make driving dangerous or, at times, impossible. Even in good winter weather conditions, the cold can impact the way your vehicle operates. It is important to prepare for seasonal driving by “winterizing” your vehicle. There are things you can do to make your vehicle better able to handle icy roads, as well as to prepare in case of an emergency. Use this list as a wintertime vehicle prep guide. 

Ready Windshield

Winter weather can make it difficult enough to see without a windshield that makes matters worse. Check your wiper blades to make sure they’re ready to wipe away precipitation and ice. Replace wiper blades if they look worn down or frayed. Refill wiper fluid as necessary. Purchase winter wiper fluid to help, and an ice scraper and brush.  

Winterize Tires

Your vehicle’s tires are its connection point with the ground. Bald, worn, or tires unfit to drive on icy roads can cause an accident. Prep your tires for Montana’s snowy conditions by swapping out your summer tires for winter ones. Snow tires have softer rubber that makes them extra flexible even in freezing conditions. They also have special tread for slip resistance. Talk to your mechanic about the appropriate tires for your vehicle. 

Refill Antifreeze

Antifreeze is a vital part of Montana winters. Check the level of your antifreeze solution in your radiator. You should have about 50-percent antifreeze and 50-percent water in your coolant solution to prevent it from freezing. If you currently only have water, you’re at risk of a frozen radiator. Check the composition of your fluid using an over-the-counter tester, or ask your mechanic to check for you. 

Check Oil

As temperatures drop, the engine oil in your vehicle may not retain its viscosity to properly lubricate components. The cold can thicken the oil, making it work harder to circulate through your engine. Get a wintertime oil change, and replace your oil with a thinner version to prevent it from thickening too much. The owner’s manual of your vehicle should have information about which kind of oil is best for Montana’s cold winters. 

Check Battery

Battery problems are common in cold weather. The battery’s capacity reduces in winter, which can lead to a car that won’t start. Check your battery cables for breaks, rust, and loose connections. Check battery fluid and refill with distilled water if necessary. Read the level of charge in your battery by using a handheld hydrometer if no built-in reader exists. Consider replacing or recharging your battery in preparation for cold weather.

Winter Travel Kit

Montana is a massive state, and even a small issue can turn into a big deal in the middle of nowhere. Get a flat tire on a backroad in the winter, for example, and what are you going to do? Throw in no cell phone reception, and the issue becomes quite sticky. This is exactly why being prepared is one of the top Montana driving tips. You can avoid a big disaster by simply carrying some supplies with you. Here are a few things to keep in your car at all times:

Recommended emergency travel bag items:

  • Cell phone and car charger or auxiliary battery
  • Extra winter clothing – boots, coat, gloves, hat
  • Sleeping bag or blankets
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  •  First Aid kit
  • Shovel, scraper and brush
  • Jumper cables
  • Drinking water and high calorie nonperishable food
  • Cat litter or sand (for tire traction)
  • Whistle to signal for help 
  • Dust mask 
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties 
  • Basic Tool Kit, Knife and Shovel 
  • Axe or Saw 
  • Tow Chain, Straps or Come-Along
  • Jack and lug wrench
  • Tire pressure gauge 
  • Spare Tire 
  • Air pump
  • Wire and Rope 
  • Extra Oil and De-Icer 
  • Flares 
  • Booster Cables 
  • Non-perishable, high energy food 
  • Local maps

Winter Driving Tips

Drivers should know some basic safety tips for avoiding accidents and injuries this winter:

• Allow extra time to reach destinations. 

It may be annoying to leave earlier for work in the morning, but doing so minimizes the need to rush and encourages safer driving.

• Clean your vehicle off before driving. 

Completely remove all snow and ice from your vehicle, including from on top of the roof and from the windows. 

• Driving with obstructed windows is extremely dangerous, and driving with a load of snow on top of your vehicle is also dangerous to other drivers; dislodged chunks of snow could startle a driver behind you and cause an accident.

• Do not use cruise control. A vehicle’s cruise control settings may offer comfort on the highway during long trips, but it is not advisable to use these settings during the winter. Cruise control sets your vehicle to a certain speed and maintains that speed automatically, but during the winter it may be necessary to adjust your speed manually without warning to account for changing road conditions.

• Be careful during low visibility. 

Heavy snowfall or driving during dark winter nights is dangerous; always ensure your vehicle’s lights are in working order and drive slower than usual during periods of poor visibility.

• Do not pass snow plows unless absolutely necessary. 

Snow plows may travel slower than other vehicles, but they generally have less visibility than other vehicles and passing one at the wrong time can easily cause an accident.

• Leave adequate space between your vehicle and the one in front of you. 

A general rule of thumb is to allow one car length between your vehicle and the one in front of you for every 10 mph. 

For example, at 40 mph you would ideally want four car lengths of space between vehicles. 

During the winter you should allow even more room; snow and ice on the road can cause your vehicle to require more braking distance than usual. 

Safety Around Snowplows 

Snowplows are on the road for your safety. 

When you encounter a snowplow, remember:

  • Don’t crowd the plow.
  • Plow drivers have limited visibility so don’t assume your vehicle is in view.
  • Maintain a safe distance behind the snowplow.
  • Plows aren't just removing snow. They may also be spreading sand or deicer. 
  • Be patient — never pass through a white out.
  • The driver will pull over when it is safe to do so to allow vehicles to pass.
  • Slow down.
  • Plows are large and move slower than highway speeds. It is difficult to judge distance when approaching the plow so slow down immediately to avoid a collision.

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