The U.S. Federal Highway Administration reports that icy roads contribute to over 150,000 car accidents every year, meaning that driving on snowy roads can be deadly if you can’t brake your vehicle at the right time. Which raises the question: what happens when you use engine brake on snowy roads? And can You Use Engine Brake in Snow?
Using an engine brake, also known as a retarder, in snowy or icy conditions requires extra caution and proper techniques to avoid skidding or losing control. Though engine braking can be done safely, drivers need to understand how it works and adapt their driving accordingly.
This comprehensive guide will provide drivers with tips, facts, and steps for safely using engine brakes in snowy weather from experts and authorities.
What Is an Engine Brake and How Does It Work?
An engine brake, formally known as an auxiliary braking system or retarder, uses the engine to slow a vehicle down rather than just the wheel brakes. Here’s a quick rundown of how they work:
- Compression release engine brakes – This system bleeds off air pressure used for compression in the cylinders, causing drag that slows the engine.
- Exhaust brakes – Also known as jake brakes, they close off the exhaust system so the engine works against backpressure.
- Retarders – These use hydraulic or electromagnetic resistance in the driveline to slow wheel rotation.
Engine braking reduces wear on service brakes and helps control speed downhill. But they can decrease traction in slippery conditions if used improperly.
See Also: What is an engine brake solenoid?
Why Engine Braking May Be Problematic in Snow and Ice
Engine braking is especially useful for controlling speed downgrades in large vehicles like trucks. But snow, ice and other wintry conditions can impact braking and handling. Here’s why engine braking needs extra precautions in these situations:
- Less wheel traction – Snow, slush and ice provide less grip for the wheels than dry pavement. Too much engine braking can cause them to lose traction.
- Locked wheels – Overuse of engine braking can lock up the wheels, causing dangerous skids.
- Reduced control – Slowing the wheels too much reduces steering control on slippery surfaces.
- Stability risks – Sudden or high engine braking can impact stability, causing jackknifing in tractor-trailers.
The key is moderation – abrupt or excessive engine braking is risky. The gentle, selective application helps maintain control.
Expert Tips for Using Engine Brakes in Snow and Ice
Here are key tips from professional driving instructors and organizations for safely operating vehicles with engine brakes on snowy, icy roads:
Use Minimal Braking to Stay In Control
- Apply steady, gentle pressure on the pedal to gradually slow the vehicle.
- Avoid sudden, hard braking, which can cause skidding or spinouts.
- For intensive braking, rely more on wheel brakes than the engine brake.
- Tap the brake pedal for brief pulses rather than holding it down continuously.
Adjust Your Speed and Following Distance
- Reduce your speed well below speed limits to match conditions.
- Give yourself ample room between vehicles – at least 8-10 seconds following distance.
- Slow down long before intersections, turns, interchanges and any downhill grades.
Scan Ahead and Avoid Abrupt Maneuvers
- Look well ahead to identify slippery areas, traffic hazards, merge lanes, etc.
- Make gradual steering inputs and avoid quick acceleration, braking or gear changes.
- Taper off the accelerator when approaching slowdowns.
Stay Centered In Your Lane
- Avoid tracking in others’ tire tracks or near road shoulders where snow and ice accumulate.
- Center your vehicle in the travel lane as much as possible.
Gear Down Before Descents
- Shift to a lower gear before starting down hills and grades. Let gravity and gentle engine braking do most of the work.
- For long downgrades, apply brakes intermittently to avoid overheating.
Know Your Vehicle’s Limits
- Understand your vehicle’s braking capacities and how to operate engine brakes properly. Get training if needed.
- Recognize conditions when it’s safest not to use engine braking at all.
- If the drive wheels start to slip or spin out, ease off the brake immediately.
Special Considerations for Commercial Vehicles
Engine brakes are especially important in tractor-trailers, buses and heavy straight trucks to avoid overusing service brakes. But these heavy vehicles require extra precautions in snow and ice:
- Avoid abrupt application – Gradually engaging engine brakes helps maintain stability and control.
- No coasting in neutral – Always be in gear with power available if needed for steering.
- Mind the gap – Leave ample room between vehicles to brake gradually and spot hazards.
- Prevent jackknifing – Sudden braking can break the traction of trailer wheels, causing a dangerous jackknife skid.
- Watch the sides – Oversize vehicles are impacted more by crosswinds on snowy roads.
- Plan stops carefully – Identify safe areas to pull over completely off the road if needed.
Engine Braking Tips for Truck Drivers
Truck drivers have shared the following tips on using engine brakes prudently in winter conditions:
- “Feather” the brake – Make light, intermittent taps rather than holding it down.
- Avoid riding the brakes – Use only as much as needed to control speed.
- Downshift gradually – Don’t skip gears. Time downshifts to avoid abrupt braking.
- Stay off the shoulder – Road edges often have more snow and ice accumulation.
- Cover the brakes – Keep your foot over the pedal in case quick braking is needed.
- Use wheel brakes at low RPMs – They are more effective than engine brakes at lower revolutions per minute.
- Test traction first – Check grip periodically by gentle braking in a low gear.
Best Practices for Winter Engine Braking
Based on the above expert guidance, here are some best practices to follow when engine braking in snowy and icy driving conditions:
Apply Brakes Lightly
Use gentle, modulated pressure on the brake pedal. Avoid firm, sustained braking.
Reduce speeds well below speed limits and flow of traffic. Go slow enough to brake easily.
Increase Following Distance
Leave at least 8-10 seconds between vehicles to allow gradual slowing.
Constantly look well ahead to identify slipping hazards and give yourself time to react.
Stay Centered in Lane
Avoid tracking in others’ tire ruts near lane edges where slick spots accumulate.
Shift Gears Before Descents
Downshift to help control speed on downgrades rather than braking heavily.
Know Vehicle Limits
Understand proper operation of brakes so you can apply them effectively for conditions.
Adjust for Traction Changes
Brake lightly and check traction regularly as road conditions change.
Safe Winter Driving Checklist
In addition to using engine brakes cautiously, here are some other tips for safe winter driving:
- ✔ Have the vehicle serviced – Check battery, wipers, fluids, lights, brakes, tires, etc.
- ✔ Remove ice and snow – Clear off windows, lights, mirrors before driving.
- ✔ Equip for conditions – Snow tires, chains, emergency kit, scraper, sand/salt.
- ✔ Watch weather reports – Avoid driving in severe storm conditions if possible.
- ✔ Accelerate and turn gently – To avoid skidding and maintain control.
- ✔ Don’t stop on hills/grades – Start up again slowly in the tire tracks.
- ✔ Watch for black ice – Slow down if roads look shiny or darkened.
- ✔ Keep windshield clear – Use defrosters and wipers to maintain visibility.
- ✔ Use lights – Headlights and flashers help other drivers see you.
- ✔ Allow extra travel time – Go slower and double the typical drive time.
Common Questions About Engine Braking in Snow
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about using engine brakes on snowy or icy roads:
Is engine braking safe in snow and ice?
Yes, used correctly and in moderation, engine braking can be done safely in winter driving conditions. The key is to apply the brakes gently and intermittently, not excessively or abruptly. Proper slowing well ahead of stops is important.
When should you avoid using the engine brake in snow?
Avoid using the engine brake when traction is very limited, such as during a severe storm or on icy hills. Reduction in tire grip increases risks of skidding and loss of control. Light, intermittent use of wheel brakes is safer.
Do engine brakes help or hurt traction in the snow?
Excessive engine braking can break traction on slippery surfaces. But limited, gentle engine braking combined with stay in gear for power can help maintain control. Completely avoiding the engine brake causes overuse of wheel brakes.
Should I use just the wheel brakes instead?
Relying only on wheel brakes increases risks of overheating and failure in wintry conditions. The best practice is to balance gentle engine braking with light wheel braking as needed to safely control speed.
How do I engine brake correctly in winter weather?
Follow these best practices:
- Brake gently and intermittently
- Reduce speed below limits
- Allow longer the following distance
- Shift gears before downgrades
- Stay centred in lane
- Adjust for changes in traction
Driving in snow and ice requires special care and technique. Can You Use Engine Brake in Snow? Engine braking can be done safely by following expert recommendations on the gradual application. But excessive or abrupt braking increases risks of skidding or jackknifing.
Allow ample room between vehicles, reduce speeds below limits, and combine moderate engine braking with light wheel braking as needed. Defensive drivers are cautious, alert and constantly evaluating road conditions to brake effectively.
Following these tips and best practices will give you the control and stopping power needed to drive large vehicles safely in winter weather. But it’s also smart to avoid driving in severe snow or icy conditions unless absolutely necessary. Taking the time to drive for conditions can mean avoiding an accident and arriving safely at your destination.