The Power of Neutral – A Tip For The Casual Snow Driver.

This morning, a couple inches of snow covered my road. The kids’ school wasn’t cancelled or delayed, so I figured surely the roads are better than they look. I have what I guess might be called a horseshoe driveway. The end I pull into to park has a gradual hill, but the end I pull out of is very steep, and when the roads are slick, I usually slide down almost into the street. This morning, I didn’t slide at all, which bolstered my confidence even more. I started down the road and put my SUV in 4WD just to be cautious, but the snow didn’t seem to be causing any problems. About a mile into my commute, I was thinking about work and not particularly concentrating on the snowy conditions when suddenly my car started to fishtail a bit. Despite my best efforts to keep calm, I realized the only obstacle on either side of the road was a huge stump in a person’s front yard and I was headed right for it. I attempted to steer out of my slide, and was able to barely miss the stump. I bounced over a long narrow ditch and came to rest halfway into the yard. After checking to make sure my vehicle was in one piece, I continued on to work.

When it comes to slippery road conditions, some folks live in a world where snow and ice are an everyday reality, and they know every trick in the book. Others live where it’s sunny and 75 even in the worst conditions. The target audience for this essay is people who get snow occasionally in the winter but not often enough to get extremely good at driving in it.

Extremely Good At Driving In It

There are many factors in play as a driver loses control on slippery roads, and nearly all of them are beyond anyone’s control. Before we get into this discussion, it’s important to note that I’m not suggesting anyone is helpless to prepare for bad roads: Obviously, one can drive slowly, or not drive at all. One can opt for a vehicle with 4-wheel or all-wheel drive. One can equip his vehicle with tires made for the snow, or put chains on the tires. All of those ideas, however useful they may be, are outside the scope of the topic at hand. Regardless of the circumstances for why a driver gets into a bad situation on snowy roads, one thing is true: Once a vehicle has broken traction, the driver’s options are limited.

When the vehicle starts to lose its footing on an icy or snow-covered road, the brakes become all but useless, and attempts to steer the car are futile. Some forces cannot be tamed at all—gravity and momentum are not your friends as you lose control. A driver, once in the middle of a spin or fishtail, is not afforded a choice about his surroundings, such as trees, ditches, hills, oncoming traffic, etc.

In addition to the forces of nature, a driver has to cope with an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and a spike in stress. In a split second, the state of mind changes from a calm focus to an outright panic. Hesitation is an enemy, and sharp decision-making is critical.

One thing someone can do, though often overlooked or simply not known to the driver, is to simply put the vehicle in neutral. It’s not easy to do if the driver loses his cool, but it’s extremely helpful. It’s the main reason I was able to avoid that ominous stump this morning. Even without applying pressure to the accelerator, engines are by their very nature producing power any time they are running, and as such, the wheels of a vehicle are being turned by this power. When a driver is fighting to regain control of his vehicle, the last thing he needs is for the car to be working against him.


Putting the vehicle in neutral (or pushing in the clutch, if the car has a manual transmission), stops the car from attempting to pull itself in any particular direction. Momentum—and gravity if on a hill—are already working against the driver, in addition to the slippery road, limited visibility, and whichever objects may be a danger in a driver’s path. What little braking power remains on slippery pavement is wasted unless the vehicle is in neutral. Steering is marginally more effective in neutral as well.

Although the neutral trick may not save a driver from an accident every time, it certainly improves the odds that a calm driver might be able to make the best of a bad situation. The ideal solution would be to avoid these scenarios completely, but life isn’t always ideal. Whatever the reason you find yourself out of control on the road, try to stay calm, and put your vehicle in neutral, and everything you do from there will be more effective.



~ by hamiltonjacobs on January 2, 2014.

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