Sleet or freezing rain? Here's how to handle them

Be patient, slow down, be smooth, to arrive safely when roads turn to ice

Published: February 7, 2017, 2:30 AM
Updated: November 22, 2021, 4:16 PM

Freezing Rain

Weather conditions can change rapidly as daily temperatures tend to straddle the freezing point. As a result, sleet and freezing rain tend to become common occurrences and they can create some of the most dangerous driving conditions we're likely to encounter all winter

Road surfaces can quickly become skating rinks and even vehicles equipped with the best winter tires, all-wheel drive and the latest anti-skid technologies can’t always cope with such conditions with any degree of certainty.

If possible, it’s best to delay your travels until road crews have been able to tackle the icy conditions. Sometimes, however, you have no choice but to confront Mother Nature. So here’s what to do:

  • Be sure you can see. Before you get behind the wheel, start the car so it can warm up while you chip the ice off the windows. This is the time when your decision to put quality washer fluid (with a freezing point of at least minus 40 degrees) in the windshield washer reservoir pays dividends. Spraying some on the windscreen will help melt the ice  as well as help the wipers cope with the freezing rain and muck from other vehicles once the glass is clear. Don’t just clear a space on the windshield – you need to be able to see out all the windows. Visibility in all directions is essential, especially in these conditions. Be sure the wipers are functioning properly – they’ll be your best friend once you start driving. Freezing rain can build up instantly on the windshield, so crank up the heater fan and fully engage the windshield defroster setting and turn on the rear window defogger, too.
  • Be seen. Also, be sure you’ve turned on your headlights – daytime running lights don’t necessarily activate a vehicle’s taillights so turning on the headlamps will ensure your vehicle is visible to others.
  • Be patient. Before starting your vehicle, concede to yourself that the trip is going to take longer in these conditions. Forget about trying to pass slower vehicles, especially trucks that are sanding and salting the road. If you’re stuck behind one, it’s likely the safest place to be on an icy road.
  • Be smooth. Drive as if you have eggs between your feet and the pedals – be gentle when applying the brakes; ditto when pressing the accelerator. Don’t make sudden moves with the steering wheel, either. Remember the tires are struggling to get grip even at slow speeds, so any quick movements are going to destroy what minimal traction they may have – and you’ll be heading for the ditch or worse. Try to relax your "death grip" on the steering wheel – it will help you be more gentle in your steering corrections.
  • Slow down. As in any conditions that marginalize your safety on the road, slowing down is a fundamental step to increasing the odds you’ll make it to your destination safely.
  • Give yourself room. Rather than using the brakes, it’s better in slippery conditions to slow the vehicle by simply easing off the accelerator, but this means you’ll need more distance to stop. Therefore, leave more space between you and the vehicle ahead so you have room to stop safely. Also, try to allow more space around your vehicle in case others make sudden moves into your vehicle’s path.
  • Plan ahead. Anticipate what may be ahead – if there’s a steep grade, back off the accelerator before reaching the crest, in case there’s a crisis situation waiting for you on the other side. Remember, hitting the brakes may have little effect on ice, so use the uphill grade to slow you down. If the road slopes off to the right or left, try to ease away from the slope so your vehicle doesn’t slide off the road. Even though you may know the road well, be aware of signs, such as a curve ahead, so you can be prepared in case the road surface is glare ice.
  • Stay alert. Driving in freezing rain demands the utmost concentration, so focus on the road and those around you and don't let yourself be distracted. Deciding what to cook for dinner and thinking about strategies for that important meeting at the office can wait till you’ve reached your destination.

Driving in sleet or freezing rain is risky, but by following the steps mentioned here you’ll increase the likelihood of arriving safely at your destination.