Snowstorm Driving Tips for Recent Denver Transplants

Denver after a dusting.
Denver after a dusting.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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Today is shaping up to be a memorable one for Denver drivers — and not in a good way. After a brief warm-up blast of winter that struck on October 10, and an October 14 sequel that smacked the foothills west of the city, the snow that started yesterday and is continuing to fall steadily has turned the entire metro highway system into a picturesque mess.

As a result, the commute will be the first major road test for thousands of transplants who've recently moved to metro Denver — especially those raised in areas where a cool ocean breeze constitutes a major weather change. Many of these newcomers traveling to work by car will be facing traffic challenges of a magnitude beyond anything they've previously experienced, and if they're unprepared, the results could be ugly, as longtime locals understand all too well.

The terrified expressions of steering-wheel death-grippers let us know that trouble is on the way. We might get lucky and simply have our already long journey slowed even more by someone else's stupid maneuvers. Or, in a worst-case scenario, we could find that our vehicles, and maybe even our lives, are at risk because a person in a ride bearing an out-of-state license plate didn't realize that driving as they would on dry pavement doesn't work on routes that have been transformed into plus-sized Slip ’N Slides.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, that scenario could be common over the next few days. Such conditions are why a new law requires a minimum tread depth for tires on all vehicles, including four-wheel drives, of three-sixteenths of an inch (up from an eighth of an inch); click to get details.

After the first, slighter storm of the season, CDOT issued a series of tips that essentially put the blame for any snow-related issues on unprepared drivers — but we're taking a gentler approach. To help reduce the odds of vehicular mayhem, we present the following snowy-driving tips for non-Colorado natives. Given steadily increasing traffic volume, not to mention the many ongoing (and often delayed) major highway projects, they're more important than ever.

For newcomers, there's no shame in not knowing how to drive on snow — but for those who don't bother to learn how, there definitely is. Continue to count down our top ten suggestions.

Side streets can be even trickier to navigate than major routes after a snowstorm.
Side streets can be even trickier to navigate than major routes after a snowstorm.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Number 10: Slow the hell down

Those warnings about decreasing your speed when roadways are wet, snowpacked or icy shouldn't be dismissed as the advice of finger-wagging octogenarians who have seemingly forgotten what the gas pedal does. A little thing called physics tells us that the faster you go, the farther you're apt to skate if you hit a slick spot.

Number 9: Speaking of physics, SUVs aren't immune to it

Escalades and the like can roll over a lot of things, but not the laws of science. In fact, if you start to slide in a giant sports-utility vehicle, the extra size and weight are apt to get you in trouble faster than if you were piloting a Mini Cooper. And that's not to mention the issues some SUVs have with rolling over and/or flipping. While you may feel badass zooming by slowpokes on a snowy day, they'll get the last laugh if you're on your top a minute or two later.

Number 8: Slamming on your brakes can be totally pointless

Trying to mash your brake pedal through the floorboards only works if you're Fred Flintstone, especially on snowy pavement where you've got no traction. If you've got anti-lock brakes, steady pressure's the ticket. If you have standard brakes, pump them. And do it gently rather than pretending you're crushing a zombie's skull on The Walking Dead, or you'll be the walker — because your car will be too crinkled up to drive.

Number 7: Black ice is actually a thing

So you look at the roads ahead and don't see any snow on them even though there's been precipitation recently and it's freezing outside. Time to peel out? Wrong. There's a damn good chance the surface is covered with a thin sheet of ice capable of turning your car into a hockey puck. And it's no fun when you put that particular biscuit in the basket.

Number 6: Signs aren't there for no reason

It's not a myth: Bridges and overpasses are frequently icier than the roadway on either side of them. For that reason, executing a lane change or traffic maneuver on a bridge that might work fine on the rest of the interstate could end with you getting a face-full of air bag.

A Denver International Airport after a 2006 blizzard.
A Denver International Airport after a 2006 blizzard.
Thomas Cooper/Getty Images

Number 5: Get low

When it's snowing like crazy and your visibility is for shit, you're going to be tempted to switch on your brights — and after you do, you'll be blinded by the light reflecting off the snow and bouncing right back at you. Use the low beams, and feel free to leave them on until you get to your destination — which you'll have a lot better chance of reaching if your eyes are actually working.

Number 4: Sudden turns can turn into sudden wipeouts

Presumably, you actually know where you're going — meaning you know when you need to turn and can start doing it early, rather than at the last minute. So when the weather's dicey, round your friggin' corners — unless you'd rather smack into one of them.

Number 3: Be ready for a skid

There continues to be debate about whether steering into a skid is the right thing to do or the key ingredient to an unintended 360. But we defer to a local MasterDrive instructor, who offered advice that's simple and easy to remember: "Look where you want to go and steer in that direction."

Number 2: It's actually important to be able to see where you're going

On days when it's snowing sideways, visibility is often more figurative than literal — and when that's the case, you can't continue to drive as you would on a sunny day, when your knowledge of your usual route makes the process almost automatic. Don't take anything for granted or you'll be sorry — as will everyone else around you.

Number 1: Be patient

When the road conditions are lousy, it's going to take you longer to get where you want to go. So deal with it. Leave earlier. Or don't, and be cool about getting there later than you'd planned. A snowstorm's a great excuse for showing up late, and Coloradans are generally very understanding when it happens. You'll realize that after you've been here for a few more years.

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