Snow is coating the mountaintops, temperatures are hitting double-digit negatives, and all of the coffee shops on campus are unveiling their holiday-inspired sugar bomb drinks. Hooray! Winter is coming to the Okanagan.
All of this impending “winterfication” also means that it’s time for us to brace ourselves for the season of sliding down the pathway to H Lot in our UGG Tasman slippers, and white-knuckling our steering wheels while clumps of wet snow and hail smack against our windshields.
Jokes aside, winter driving in the Okanagan and beyond doesn’t have to be an ongoing uphill battle. I’ve compiled this winter driving safety article to help inform folks on how to stay safe on the road this winter. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the Yukon and actually learned how to drive in January when I was 15, so you know the tips I include here are legit.
First of all, get some winter tires on your vehicle this winter — or, at the very least, all-season tires if you have all-wheel drive or don’t anticipate driving on the highways. I don’t care if you’ve spent the last few winters sliding around on bald tires and have somehow avoided an accident. The grip and safety that winter tires and all-seasons provide are unmatched, and it’s not worth the risk to your own and others’ safety to go without them.
The first car that I bought and drove around in the Yukon was a 2003 Volkswagen Golf with super great studded winter tires. Even though the car was front-wheel drive, and I could probably drive it in a Flintstone manner if I wanted to, those winter tires kept me on the road and granted me traction to stay out of the ditch. On that note, I have occasionally slid into ditches in other vehicles during the wintertime — even some with winter tires — as this is somewhat of a rite of passage for Yukoners who experience snow for approximately eight months of the year. If this happens to you, stay calm, turn on your hazard lights, get out of the way of incoming traffic (if appropriate to the context of your situation), and either call for roadside assistance or flag down help from passersby.
To identify if your tires are suitable for winter driving, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) provides the following information: “Both the all-season Mud and Snow (M+S) tires and the mountain/snowflake tires meet the requirements for winter tire designation in B.C. To be considered a winter tire, a M+S or a mountain/snowflake tire must also have at least 3.5mm of tread depth. Tell your local tire retailer what kind of road and weather conditions you drive in, so you get tires that are best suited for your needs.” Certain roads in British Columbia require winter tires or all-season M+S to legally drive on them. Do your research and make sure your tires fit these requirements before you depart on your road trip.
If you spend a lot of time driving in snowy conditions or enjoy driving out to do winter activities such as skiing or sledding, ICBC recommends winter tires with mountain/snowflake symbols as your best option.1 In my experience, this is especially pertinent if you don’t have four-wheel drive on your vehicle.
Shop around and do your research before buying winter tires because not all tires are made the same. Although cheap winter tires may seem desirable since a lot of us are broke students living on ramen and discounted boxed wine, it is not worth it to trade your safety for affordability. If possible, shell out for the better quality winter tires, and they will last you longer and provide you with more control. Canadian Tire, Costco, Mr. Lube, KalTire, and the various car dealerships in Kelowna have many options to compare and contrast. Sometimes, you can find coupons and rebates for them online, too!
You’ll also want to keep a winter driving safety kit in your vehicle with anything you might need in case your car breaks down, you get stuck in traffic for a long time, or weather conditions force you to pull over. Many people keep an “all-year-round” car safety kit in their vehicle. For example, the kit I keep in my trunk contains items such as jumper cables, my spare tire, an air pump, reflective pylons, a sleeping bag, a rain jacket, fire starters, a lighter, a toolkit, and protein bars.
However, as the weather gets colder, it is important to cycle in some winter-specific car safety equipment. The Government of Canada’s “Get Prepared” page recommends keeping a shovel, snow brush, ice scraper, a candle, winter clothing, and sand, salt, or cat litter. If you’re scratching your head about the “sand, salt, or cat litter” part, this is in case you get stuck in the snow and need to create traction (or something to grip on) under your tires in order to get yourself out. You should also keep various pieces of weather-appropriate clothes in your kit. A heavy wool sweater, warm boots, toque, mitts, winter jacket, and snow pants will come in clutch in case anything doesn’t go to plan while you’re out and about.
If road conditions aren’t good and you’re nervous to drive, consider taking public transportation or carpooling with a friend who is confident and prepared for winter driving. The buses in Kelowna are well-equipped for winter conditions — I haven’t had any problems with riding them during the snowstorms I’ve experienced blasting through Kelowna.
If wintery conditions are reasonable and you’re feeling good about your tires, confidence in driving, and your winter car safety kit, then it’s time to remember your driver’s education training or equivalent, such as your mom dragging you out in flurrying snow to learn how to parallel park between two school buses, like in my experience.
Before you start your car or even head out the door, check the forecast. Did Environment Canada issue a crazy snowfall warning? Is the weather app telling you to anticipate freezing rain in the next 15 minutes? Even though weather forecasts can’t predict everything, they can be helpful in planning your route or even determining whether that trip to get a crème brûlée latte with your friends should wait for another day.
In addition, before you leave, make sure you have full visibility in your vehicle. No matter how late you are to that group meeting, scrape all the ice off your windows, mirrors, headlights, and taillights. If it’s foggy in your car from blasting the heat, make sure your fan circulation is drawing fresh air from the outside, rather than recirculating the moist air inside your car. It can also be helpful to turn on your air conditioning to reduce moisture in your vehicle even more.
Once you’re on the road, keep a further distance from other vehicles than you would during summer driving, both with following distances and stopping distances. You never know if other people on the road have winter tires or experience with winter driving, and it is best to give everyone ample room for error. In addition to this, don’t use cruise control in the wintertime and stay extra focused on your driving.
If you find yourself sliding, don’t panic, don’t slam on the brakes, and don’t jerk your steering wheel back and forth. Instead, tap on the brakes (tap, tap, tap, tap) and keep your steering wheel directed toward where you want to go. If you are in an emergency situation and need to stop immediately, direct your car to the softest landing possible, such as a snow pile. Only do this if you absolutely need to!
It is also important to keep your gas tank over halfway full during the winter. If you spend 10 to 15 minutes idling to warm up your car every morning, begin to drive somewhere, and realize you need to pull over, you don’t want to have your tank almost empty. Picture this: your hazard lights are on, you have the heat on maximum, windshield wipers are practically about to fly off your windshields, and you’re bumping “Jingle Bell Rock” — yeah, that will quickly use up a lot of your remaining fuel reserves if you have less than half a tank of gas. If you’re considering topping up during winter conditions, just do it.
Furthermore, if after reading all of this information about winter driving (plus additional online research, as this article is not all-inclusive) and you’re still feeling uncertain about driving during the wintertime, it might be worth it to invest in a winter driving course to practice your winter driving skills with a professional. Whether you’re a new driver, new to winter driving, or just want to practice more before driving in snowy and icy conditions this winter, reach out to one of the many driving instruction companies in the Okanagan to find out their rates and what courses they offer. Gaining this driver’s education certification may even lower your insurance, depending on your situation!
This next piece of advice is also relevant all year round, but is of particular importance with holiday parties and New Year's parties happening soon: never, NEVER drink or consume drugs and drive. Always arrange for a ride home from a trusted and sober friend or family member, taxi, or rideshare service. Last winter, the Kelowna Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) set up various road checks throughout Kelowna in order to seek out impaired drivers as part of their CounterAttack Program, and there will likely be road stops again this year.
Last December, police stated, “Sadly, impaired driving still claims an average of over 60 lives each year in B.C., and over 1,700 impaired driving related collisions.”3 Please, don’t consume drugs or alcohol and drive. If you partake in these activities at any time of the year, make a plan to safely and legally get home.
Overall, don’t be overconfident on the road this winter, but also don’t hibernate in your basement and avoid going out all winter because of the snow and ice. Prepare yourself and your form of transportation for any possible conditions, always plan ahead, and know your limits. Also, keep your friends, family, and peers safe and informed by letting them know about these tips and by doing additional research that fits your specific needs.