Winter Driving: It’s More Than Just All-Wheel Drive

By Craig Fitzgerald

CarMax has been the nation’s top used car franchise for decades now, and along the way, it’s generated a lot of data about the kind of vehicles that Americans purchase. In its research in 2019, it determined that sales of all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles had reached an all-time high and showed no sign of receding.

In 2018, more than 26% of all the vehicles CarMax sold were all-wheel or four-wheel drive. In states where it snows (read: New England and a handful of high-elevation western states) that number is a lot higher. Five of the six New England states make up half of the top 10 states where all-wheel drive is most popular, with New Hampshire coming in just behind number one Colorado with 63.58 percent of all the vehicles purchased featuring all-wheel or four-wheel drive.

Yet, with all of this equipment at our disposal, we seem no better at negotiating winter roads than we ever were. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wintry conditions are responsible for 116,000 serious injuries every year, along with 1,300 deaths, making up almost five percent of all traffic fatalities in the United States annually.

There are a number of reasons why we haven’t significantly improved our crash numbers in the winter months:

Education and Experience

Take a look at the Driver’s Manual produced by the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for an example of how we have failed to educate new drivers in winter driving skills. Out of nearly 165 pages, the manual devotes just 201 words to driving safely in the snow and ice. That’s opposed to FORTY-TWO PAGES of information in Chapter 1 on how to obtain a license.

Even when we do have the opportunity to teach students about driving in inclement weather, we avoid it at all costs. A sample of driving school policies around the country indicate that if there’s a threat of snowy or icy weather in the forecast, driving classes will be canceled.

Unfortunately, most drivers learn about driving in the snow and ice by accident. They’re at the office, or on the way home from a long weekend, and suddenly a blanket of snow is covering the roadway and they’re learning on the job.


According to a survey from the United States Tire Manufacturing Association, over 35 percent of Americans have no idea how to identify whether their tires are bald. An anecdotal survey of any parking lot in the Northeast will show you that a whole lot of your fellow drivers who invested in all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive didn’t bother to invest in tires at all, let alone tires that were designed to provide ample traction in the snow and ice.

All-wheel and four-wheel drive is outstanding at getting you up a snowy hill, or through the pile of plowed snow at the end of your driveway. It is absolutely ineffective at stopping you any more quickly than a vehicle with either front- or rear-wheel drive, though. At 10 miles per hour on a frozen hockey rink, Tire Rack showed that a Toyota RAV4 and a Toyota Camry both stopped approximately 7.5 feet shorter when equipped with winter tires. At 30 miles per hour, that translates to nearly four car-lengths.

According to data compiled by NHTSA, “rear-end crashes are the most frequently occurring type of collision, accounting for approximately 29 percent of all crashes and resulting in a substantial number of injuries and fatalities each year.”

If your vehicle won’t stop because the tires are either bald or less effective in snow and ice, and your most likely type of accident is the rear-end crash, all-wheel drive does little to nothing to prevent accidents in the snow.


Wipers: Your wipers are your most constant companion in the winter months, but if they’re the same dried-out old wiper blades you were running all summer, then it’s time to huck them in the trash in favor of some new wipers.

Winter tires can help you cut through the snow, and winter wipers can help your wiper blades stay in contact with the windshield. Most wiper assemblies have surfaces for ice and snow to form, making them all but useless after a few miles in the driving snow.

Martin Kashnowski Director, Product Management, Wiping Systems Robert Bosch LLC notes that “Some manufacturers offer a winter blade. However, if the rubber boot over the blade should tear, the water can collect inside and freeze, causing the blade to become ineffective. By design, beam blades are not affected by snow and ice buildup. The enclosed tension springs help keep the blade flexible and effective in wintry conditions.”

A beam blade is manufactured with a patented beam arcing technology, which ensures a snug fit and consistent amount of force distribution across the blade onto the windshield. That consistent pressure on the glass – across the entire blade – is extremely vital in bad weather, as inconsistent beam arcing will result in areas of the windshield being un-wiped, which impair the driver’s vision.

Snow Removal: Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all have laws requiring motorists to keep their vehicle clear of ice and snow. It’s not only dangerous for you in terms of your ability to see other vehicles, it’s dangerous for the cars driving around you.

Lighting: Your headlights not only allow you to see down the road, but they also allow others around you to see you coming.

The biggest issue with headlights in cars since about 1986 has been the UV degradation of plastic composite headlamp lenses. Take a walk through your parking lot at work and you’ll see that about 60 percent of the cars out there have seriously fogged headlamps.

3M and other manufacturers offer kits that help solve the problem. Using increasing grades of sanding medium and a final polish, you can restore your foggy headlamps in about a half an hour.

Restoring a foggy headlamp in a Toyota Corolla at 3M’s Auto Boot Camp, using a light meter we noticed a 10-fold increase in light output versus the unrestored headlight. For short money and not a lot of time, it’s a major improvement.

Amazingly, most New England drivers look at a $40,000 investment in a new vehicle as the cure for the three months of the year when the weather turns to snow and ice. With less than a thousand dollars spent on winter tires, winter wipers and clear headlamps, New England drivers can get through the winter with a lot more confidence in the vehicle they’re already driving.

One Response to Winter Driving: It’s More Than Just All-Wheel Drive

  1. Jim Barisano February 17, 2020 at 3:51 am #

    Great article Lisa! Every driver needs to read it and heed the advice.

Leave a Reply