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Keeping safe on the winter roads: Expert tips and advice

car in the winter
Written by Lindsay Smith

While safe driving is important year-round, during the winter months it becomes even more critical for drivers (and pedestrians) to be aware of how changing weather conditions like snow, ice or early darkness can impact driving and pedestrian safety.

Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a staff physician in general internal medicine at Sunnybrook, conducted a study on the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on pedestrian fatalities. The findings showed that pedestrian deaths dropped significantly during April 2020, but perhaps more interesting was that the drop was short-lived.

“In April 2020, Toronto had zero pedestrian fatalities where about three would have been expected, [but] my biggest surprise was that the savings disappeared fast,” says Dr. Redelmeier. “In May, June and after, we observed continued reductions in mobility and yet no improvements in roadway safety.”

The results from the research in Toronto were similar to data in New York City during the same lockdown period. Specifically, pedestrian deaths dropped for 3 months, then rebounded immediately to typical rates afterward. All this occurred despite an ongoing 40% reduction in pedestrian activity and 15% reduction in prevailing traffic.

Dr. Redelmeier says it’s possible pedestrians were more cautious overall in the early days of the pandemic, leading to initial savings of pedestrian deaths. That caution may not have been sustained. Because pedestrian deaths account for one-quarter of deaths on Ontario’s roadways, increased vigilance for drivers and pedestrians could help save more lives.

Brandy Tanenbaum, Sunnybrook’s injury prevention program coordinator, and Dr. Redelmeier share some tips so drivers and pedestrians can stay safe, especially during the winter months.

Safe driving makes for safer roadways

Drivers can help keep the streets safer by ensuring their cars are in good working condition (e.g. brakes) and that, during the colder months, they are using winter tires.

“They’ll grip the road better than all-season tires, particularly when it’s colder than seven degrees,” says Brandy.

Drivers also need to stay within the speed limit, signal turns and lane changes, and exercise caution when entering or turning at intersections, even more so in the winter when ice can make it difficult to stop.

And, as always, no driving while under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

For pedestrians, it’s important not to rely on drivers to keep them safe.

“The only person who can keep them safe is themselves,” she says. “Always use an abundance of caution, cross the street at regulated intersections, make eye contact with drivers so you know they can see you.” She adds a reminder to be aware of slippery road conditions that could make it harder for drivers to stop at intersections.

Pay attention to your surroundings

Distracted driving can be deadly, which is why there are laws in place to prevent drivers from using cellphones while driving. But Brandy says it’s important drivers are mindful of any possible distraction.

“If you’ve got somebody in the car with you or you’re changing the radio station or you’re trying to reach down and grab something,” she says. And winter driving conditions —snow, sleet, ice—make it even more important for drivers to be focused on the road.

Brandy says pedestrians should also be aware that “texting and walking” can lead to injuries if they’re distracted from what’s happening around them.

“You want to be aware of your environment,” she says, which could include black ice, potholes or packed snow.

Be ready for night driving (and walking)

We all know it gets dark around 5 p.m. during the winter, which can make it harder for drivers to see pedestrians. Drivers should be more cautious at night, watching carefully for people out walking, and pedestrians can help make by making themselves more visible at night, say Dr. Redelmeier and Brandy.

“Don’t be a pedestrian ninja,” says Dr. Redelmeier. “Instead, try to dress a bit brightly when you’re walking, particularly at night.”

Brandy says it can also be helpful for dog owners to use a lighted collar or reflective leash when walking their dogs to help drivers see them when they’re crossing the street.

“Anything to make ourselves more visible to oncoming traffic,” she says.

About the author

Lindsay Smith