Winter Driving Tips for Professional Truck Drivers

Helpful tips for graduates and other truck drivers who may find themselves working in some of the colder parts of the country.

Winter Driving Tips for Truck Drivers

When traveling in winter weather in colder climates one must always be ready for whatever you may encounter. Never drive in unsafe conditions and don’t wait for the blizzard of the century before you pack these items into the cab of your truck:

  • Warm clothing (loose layers of clothing, extra gloves, rain gear)
  • A coat to support the temperature for either day or night
  • A flashlight in the glove box
  • A blanket, food, and water
  • A bag of sand or salt, extra windshield washer fluid, and antifreeze
  • A windshield scraper
  • Jumper cables
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Tire chains or traction mats
  • At least a half tank of gas at all times during the winter

Plan long trips carefully and consider what weather conditions you may encounter when planning your routes. North-south routes and roadways through mountain passes can send you through many diverse weather patterns and temperatures in a matter of days or hours. It’s important to have the available weather information, a well-organized emergency kit, and always practice safe driving. Explore tips on safe driving to maintain traction during cold weather situations.

Complete a Pre-Trip Inspection

Professional drivers are required to inspect their vehicles before every trip. Do a visual, hands-on inspection and check all required items, including tires, wiper blades, fluids, and lights. Check your vehicle more often in adverse weather and low temperatures.

If you need a refresher on CDL pre-trip inspection procedure, review them here.

Slow Down

Many winter accidents occur because drivers are going too fast for road conditions. A slower speed gives you more time to react if something occurs. Hydroplaning happens more frequently at higher speeds as well, including loss of control because of slush. According to SafeMotorist, driving over 35 miles per hour and driving during the first 10 minutes of rain are some of the most dangerous times for hydroplaning. Extra patience and care for other drivers should be taken at all times and can help avoid accidents.

Give Yourself Plenty of Safe Space

Allow for more room between yourself and other vehicles. You should always have enough space and time to move out of harm’s way and bring the vehicle to a safe stop, not just in winter weather conditions. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, truckers should leave at least one second for every 10 feet of vehicle length if they’re driving below 40 miles per hour. You’ll need even more space for higher speeds and varying conditions.

Hold Your Steering Wheel Firmly

Sudden, sharp moves can quickly cause you to lose control of your vehicle. Keep your vehicle steady through ruts in the road, heavy wind, and icy conditions. Keep both hands on the wheel, especially during winter conditions.

Brake and Accelerate Lightly

Try not to do anything forcefully in bad weather. Anti-locking Braking Systems (ABS) can be your friend when used properly. The ABS prevents the wheels from locking, enabling you to steer around obstacles.

If not equipped, when you need to slow down quickly in slippery conditions, try lightly pumping your brakes as needed. This reduces your chance of locking your tires and spinning out of control.

Watch for Black Ice

Black ice is a dangerous road condition for truckers and other drivers. It is a thin layer of transparent ice that forms when the temperature is close to freezing and sometimes makes the road look slightly wet. Never assume just because the sun is out that the road is just wet. Always have current information on weather conditions in your area, including information concerning ice build-up.  Black Ice is difficult to spot, so when the temperature gets close to freezing, look for small clues:

  • Ice build-up on a truck’s mirror arms, antennas, or the top corners of the windshield
  • The spray from tires on vehicles in front of you will stop

Use Extra Caution When Approaching Bridges

Elevated structures, such as bridges and highway overpasses, usually freeze first, and many are not treated with ice-/snow-melt materials (salt, sand) like the rest of the road. Black ice is often found on bridges and can make driving conditions dangerous.

Be Ready for Mountain Driving

Mountain weather can be severe and unpredictable in winter and often changes rapidly. Be ready for wind gusts and watch and/or listen for emergency vehicles and snowplows. If at all possible, do not stop in avalanche zones. 

Obey posted rules, which vary per state. Tire chains may be required for certain routes. In extreme conditions, some routes may be completely closed due to snow and ice. Check the forecast and listen for any road closures along your route.

Obey All Road Signs

Safety authorities post warning information for a reason. A curve posted at 35 miles per hour is posted because testing has determined that it is the maximum safe speed for any vehicle.

Stay in Your Vehicle If Stranded or Stuck

If you get stuck in a bad storm or blizzard, slide off the road, and can’t see a close place to seek assistance, stay put! It’s easy to get confused in a bad storm, and you may get lost.

Bundle up. You should also keep moving to stay warm. Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow and open a downwind window slightly for ventilation. Run your engine for only 10 to 15 minutes each hour.

Get Off the Road If Necessary

Don’t push your luck and assume that plows have treated the roadways. Use your best judgment. Listen to weather reports and warnings and react appropriately.

Learn and use the Smith System® safety education program that uses the “Five Keys to Space-Cushion Driving.” Many carriers make this a required training for their drivers.

The five keys are:

  • Aim High in Steering: Make sure you’re looking far enough ahead of your vehicle so you have time to react to any hazardous situation.
  • Get the Big Picture: Look all around your vehicle.
  • Keep Your Eyes Moving: Continuously scan the entire area.
  • Leave Yourself an Out: Always have an escape plan for you and your vehicle.
  • Make Sure They See You: Make other drivers aware of your presence.

Always be alert and use good judgment on the weather. A good driver will avoid traveling when the weather is too bad. This could be snow, ice, or high winds. They also need to be professional when notifying their driver managers and have a good reason why they are shutting down.

Know the Hazards Related to the Current Temperature

This may sound strange, but colder doesn’t always mean worse in terms of slippery road conditions. It goes without saying that you should always exercise great caution at any temperature, but it’s worth noting that the roads may be particularly slippery between 22 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Road & Track, when the weather is in this temperature range, your tires may actually get less grip than they do at even colder temperatures. The article also points out, though, that the road temperature may not always be the same as the air temperature, depending on traffic patterns and other factors.

Remember Yesterday’s Temperature

If the temperature drops overnight, especially if it rained the day before, the roads could be slick with ice. It’s not enough to know what the weather is doing on a particular day. You should also pay attention to the previous day’s conditions, especially if you’re coming back from home time and hitting the road fresh.

Find out if it rained along your route and if so, compare the previous day’s temperatures to upcoming temperatures. Knowing what to expect can help you adjust accordingly and stay safe.

Consider Your Speed

You shouldn’t drive faster than the speed limit, but keep in mind that if weather and road conditions worsen, you should adjust your speed accordingly. Don’t look at those speed limits as the number to hit. You should never feel compelled to drive faster than road conditions allow.

Some roads have minimum speed limits posted, but it’s important to use your discretion and go slower in bad weather as safety requires.

Monitor Your Fuel

According to Argonne National Laboratory, cold temperatures can cause diesel to gel which can prevent a truck from running. This was a serious problem for tractor-trailer drivers in the past, but modern trucks are equipped with glow plugs to prevent gelled diesel from clogging up the engine.

Be sure you wait until the glow plugs sufficiently warm up the engine before starting it. In extreme conditions, this may take a long time, so be cautious to avoid draining your battery.

Above all else, be sure to use your best judgment in bad conditions. You’re the one out there on the road, so if it doesn’t seem safe to be driving then you might be better off waiting it out at a safe haven.

Stay Safe Out There

At Roadmaster Drivers School, we’re committed to keeping you safe on and off the road. Whether you’re facing a blizzard on a mountain pass or cruising along a comfortable interstate, we’ll help you stay safe and stay on the road. Learn more about our commitment to safety and quality training today.