Driving in ruts and slush

Slow down – not just your vehicle, but your hands and feet

Published: February 27, 2013, 7:00 AM
Updated: October 11, 2021, 9:56 AM

slush-covered road

One of the scariest things a driver can encounter in winter is having to get out of ruts or through slush banks left by preceding vehicles.

These conditions occur at both ends of the winter temperature scale – thick, heavy, wet slush when the thermometer hovers near the freezing mark, or frozen snow on top of a surface of pure ice when it's much colder.

In either case, the process for getting safely out of the ruts or through the slush is similar – slow down and avoid sudden inputs.

Contact patches

There are only four places your vehicle actually touches the ground – four tiny little areas about the size of the palm of your hand on the bottom of each tire, called contact patches.

What happens at those contact patches determines how well the vehicle starts, stops and turns and every input command you make as a driver is carried out by those four contact patches.

Just like skiing or skating, where there are only two contact patches, the trick as to treat them with respect, shifting weight onto and off of them gradually.

No sudden moves

When you move the steering wheel you cause the weight of the vehicle to transfer, much as it does when you walk, shifting your weight from one foot to the other.

Gradual steering inputs avoid a sudden weight shift unto the outside front tire, which can putting a new and sometimes overpowering load on it in slippery conditions, if you are not careful.

The same holds true for braking. Suddenly jumping on the brake pedal will shift a lot of weight unto those two front contact patches – and off the rear ones, potentially causing them to lose traction.

By planning and looking ahead you will gain enough extra time to ease unto the brake pedal, gradually transferring some weight unto the front tires.

Let tires do their thing

Keep in mind that tires are meant do their job when rolling. The tread design has biting surfaces on the edge, including channels to throw away snow, water or slush. The key is to let these various parts of the tread do what they were designed to do.

By steering slowly and gradually into the edge of the rut or slush you allow the edges of the tire to get maximum grip. If you turn too sharply the sidewall of the tire contacts the edge of the rut and sidewalls don’t have any tread.

Once you have started a gradual turn keep a firm grip on the wheel and avoid reacting to the tugging you will feel. Let the tire bite through the rut and just before you get where you want to go, very gradually start to turn in that direction, once again avoiding any sudden or excessive movement of the steering wheel.

Slow and steady does it – so slow down the vehicle as well as what you do with your hands and feet.