Does All-Wheel-Drive Help Reduce Accidents in Winter Conditions?

Roy DwyerWinter Driving

Accidents are common on Oregon's roads in the winterAs the winter driving season is fast approaching in Oregon we thought it was timely to showcase an article recently published by Consumer Reports discussing all-wheel-drive vehicles and their performance in snowy or icy conditions.  More than anything the folks at CR are making the argument that while all-wheel-drive is important for improved winter handling, it often leads to a sense of over-confidence as to just what your vehicle is capable of during poor driving conditions.

And they offer some sobering statistics to make their case…

Forty-one percent of all weather-related car crashes on U.S. roads are due to conditions involving snow, sleet, ice, and slush. That’s pretty sobering when you consider that those conditions usually exist during just a few months of the year. Accidents caused by winter weather result in 150,000 injuries and 2,000 deaths each year, on average, according to a study by the Federal Highway Administration.

As anyone who drives in Oregon knows, conditions becomes much more treacherous in the winter months where passes and mountain roads can become icy and snowy as early as September and as late as June.  And while a significant number of Oregonians invest in winter tires, there are quite a few trusting that their all-seaon tires and all-wheel-drive vehicle will get them through any sticky situations.  CR continues…

But can all-wheel drive really save you when the weather turns ugly? It provides some benefit, but it may be insufficient to get you through a grueling storm.

All-wheel drive is about getting your car moving from a dead stop—not about braking or steering­—and you should be aware of its limitations.

Through weeks of driving in snowy, unplowed conditions at Consumer Reports’ 327-acre test center in Connecticut, we found that all-wheel drive didn’t aid in braking or in certain cornering situations. Our evaluations conclusively showed that using winter tires matters more than having all-wheel drive in many situations, and that the difference on snow and ice can be significant.

This is extremely important in terms of avoiding a serious accident when driving in inclement weather conditions.  You’re all-wheel-drive Subaru may allow you to fly up a snowy hill with little difficulty, but if you needed to swerve to avoid an accident will it make a significant difference?  Unfortunately not as much as some drivers might expect.

…our tests found that all-wheel drive by itself won’t help if you’re heading too fast toward a sudden sharp curve on a snowy night.

That’s an important point for people who overestimate the capability of their all-wheel-drive vehicle. We’ve all seen them, zipping past us in blizzards with their illusory cloak of invincibility.

Anyone who’s driven on the Santiam Pass or up to Mt Hood can attest to this.  The number of car and truck accidents on Oregon’s mountain passes increase dramatically during the winter.

Our test-track observations lead us to advise that using snow tires provides the best grip and assurance for going, stopping, and cornering no matter what you drive: all-wheel drive, front-drive, or rear-drive. And buying winter tires for a front-drive car will cost far less than the several-thousand-dollar premium you’ll pay for all-wheel drive.

But most AWD drivers don’t think of adding winter tires. According to our survey of 54,295 subscribers who drove AWD or 4WD vehicles in the snow for more than six days last winter, less than 15 percent equipped their vehicles with winter tires. The rest kept rolling on their all-season tires and took their chances.  Consumer Reports – Do you really need AWD in the Snow?

The key takeaway from this article is that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your AWD to save you from an accident on snow and ice.  Winter tires offer the best control.  And while they do require an additional investment, it’s money well spent.

Here’s a video demonstrating some of the tests run by Consumer Reports on winter tires and all-wheel-drive vehicles.