I hate driving in the winter.
The most dreadful day of the year for me (every year) is the day I have my tires switched out. Putting those winter tires on my car means that in just a few short weeks, the snow, ice, fog, and afternoon darkness will be here.
I’m from Texas. We don’t drive in these kinds of conditions. Either our schools and businesses close for the day, they delay until 10am, or we take a sick day. So, when I first moved to Germany, I was mildly terrified when one snowy morning, I asked my husband if he would be staying home or going in a few hours late, and he LAUGHED.
“Germans don’t close things down for a little snow or ice. We go to work.”
That became all too real for me when I got a job teaching at a (sort of) nearby university. There were no alerts sent out during the night with cancellation or delay notifications. The university expected teachers and students to be there – period. So, as terrifying as it was, I had to buck up and drive the 60+ MILES from my house to the university through snow, ice, fog, and darkness. And while I still absolutely HATE driving in winter weather in Germany, I have learned a few things along the way that might be helpful for anyone who may be doing it for the first time.
Try to Calm Any Fears You Have First
My husband tried very hard to calm my fears before I ever got out on the road. He realized that because my only experience was with Texas roads and with all-season tires, I had a lot of unrealistic expectations about what winter driving in Germany would be like.
Understand the difference between winter tires and all-season tires
In Texas, everybody has all-season tires. I don’t know a single Texan who puts winter tires on their car (although, maybe some people do up in the Panhandle?). My husband spent a lot of time trying to calm my fears by explaining to me that I could not compare winter driving in Texas to winter driving in Germany because, for one, Germans don’t use all-season tires. He showed me several YouTube videos where people did comparisons of all-season tires and winter tires so that I could see the difference in their abilities to handle slippery road conditions. I have to admit, this did help me a little bit.
Understand how the German roads are treated
It’s only been in the last ten years or so that the Texas Department of Transportation started using salt mixtures on the roads. Most of my driving experience in Texas during the winter was on sand mixtures. On top of that, it always seemed like the trucks never came out until the mornings, and they only treated freeways within the city limits and other stretches of road that got a lot of traffic. Not only do the German trucks use a salt mixture, but they also plow the roads AND they start in the middle of the night. So, the way the roads are treated (meaning the mixture and time) is very different, and I would imagine that is because they don’t close things down, so people have to be able to get to where they need to go. If the weather is particularly bad, the trucks will also treat the roads (or plow them) throughout the day as well.
That being said, I think it’s important to know that not all streets receive equal treatment. The Autobahn definitely has priority, and whenever I complain to a German about being scared of driving to the university in the winter, they always say, “But you drive on the Autobahn. That is the clearest road to drive on!” And the trucks will also clear the main roads. What doesn’t get cleared are residential streets. These are the most dangerous streets to drive on – at least, that’s been my experience. Our neighborhood completely ices over in the dead of winter, and unless the sun comes out and melts it, it just stays icy. But as soon as you get out of our neighborhood, the streets are totally dry. In the beginning, I would also judge the general driving conditions by what the roads on our street looked like that morning, but you can’t do that.
It really does seem like the roads are less slippery here than in Texas and that the trucks are out way more often.
Know that German bridges are built differently
On one of my husband’s visits to Texas, we got hit with a bad winter storm. We were driving on I20 between Fort Worth and Abilene, and I was having panic attacks every time I drove over an overpass. Why? Because that’s usually the slickest part of a Texas freeway. My strategy was always to slow down before crossing and then hold the steering wheel straight and let the truck coast across. After all, I grew up watching news footage of cars trapped on the mixmaster in downtown Fort Worth every winter.
My German husband thought I was totally insane.
When I got to Germany, I was even more terrified of driving over bridges because here they are like 300 feet high (or more). And they’re a lot longer. My husband, however, explained that the bridges are built differently and that they are designed to be more resistant to temperature changes. Plus, of course, they are salted and plowed differently.
I don’t know if my husband just told me that to make me feel better, or if they really are built differently, but I have to say that as of yet I have not experienced a bridge on the Autobahn that was iced over or in worse condition than the stretches of road just before/after it.
Prepare Your Car
Some winter preparations are required by law, but there are some other things you can do to make driving in the winter a little bit less stressful.
Switch out your tires in October
Germans always say, “O bis O” – meaning Oktober bis Östern (October through Easter). This helps them to remember when to switch out their tires. I believe there is no legal date by which you have to put winter tires on your car, but if winter weather hits and you have an accident with summer tires on your car, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble. So, as long as you put them on sometime in October, you should be prepared for any early winter snaps.
Keep your windshield wiper fluid full at all times
Part of what makes winter driving stressful – at least for me – is the salt that coats your windshield. Germans work very hard to keep the main streets and Autobahns clear, so there is salt on the road pretty much throughout all of winter. Well, when the salt mixture melts the snow and ice, it turns it all into a slush, and that slush gets continually thrown up in the air by everyone’s tires. When that mixture hits your windshield, it quickly builds up and creates a white paste that will completely blind your vision if you don’t clean it off. My work commute is about 75 miles one way, and after three or four trips back and forth, my windshield wiper fluid is already extremely low. You would be surprised at just how often you need to spray your windshield. And you don’t want to run out of fluid while you’re driving because it only takes a few seconds for that mixture to build up on the glass, and you will basically be driving with your eyes closed. What I started doing is just topping off my windshield wiper fluid at the beginning of every week, and I always keep an extra bottle in my trunk for emergencies.
Consider getting fog lights
What some people might not know is that winter driving in Germany doesn’t just mean snow and ice – it also means incredibly thick fog. In December, it’s often completely dark outside by 5pm (sometimes even earlier). You combine the darkness with the salt slush being thrown at your car from other people’s tires, falling snow, AND dense fog, and you’ve got a completely terrifying drive for people like me. My car didn’t have fog lights, but we had them added, and they have been a lifesaver for me. My vision is a lot better, and I even use them when it’s extremely dark (but no fog) because they help me to see the texture of the street itself (water, ice crystals, etc.).
Tricks I’ve Picked Up Over the Years
It’s all well and good to prepare yourself mentally ahead of time, but once you’re out on the road, you might find that things happen that you’re not really prepared for. What follows are things I’ve learned from my German husband, by watching our neighbors, and through conversations with helpful strangers.
Sliding on residential streets
As I said, we have one intersection that is especially slick during the winter, and it never gets treated. I’ll never forget the first time I hit that ice. I needed to turn at the intersection, which is also on a hill, so I tapped the brake, turned the steering wheel, and my car just continued right on through the intersection like it had a mind of its own. I panicked and slammed on the brakes (yes, the totally WRONG thing to do), and cut the steering wheel even harder (also super WRONG). I came within inches of crashing into a dumpster before my car finally came to a stop. I told my husband about my experience, and he thought I was exaggerating, so we got in my car later that night, and he drove it through the intersection. His intention, of course, was to show me how NOT slippery it actually was. Instead, he too slid right through the intersection and down the hill.
So, what can you do to prevent sliding in the first place? Well, this is what all of our neighbors do. Germans clear the sidewalks in the mornings, or sometimes even late the night before. So, by 7 am or so, the sidewalks are dry. At that one intersection where the ice is so bad, people drive through it with two tires on the sidewalk because they can get traction there. So, if you have a neighborhood street that’s covered in ice, use the cleared sidewalk for traction to get past it.
When you have to choose between ice and snow
If you find yourself on a road that is covered with ice and snow, drive on the snow. Especially if it seems like the road is slick, don’t go for the tire tracks. This is what I always did in Texas, and my husband told me that was almost as bad as slamming on your brakes during a skid. The tires wear down the snow, but sometimes there is ice at the bottom – or it can turn into ice. My husband always says that it’s better to drive on snow – fresh snow being the best – because you get more traction.
If your windshield wiper fluid freezes
Now, I know what some of you are going to say – if you use the right windshield wiper fluid, you’ll never have this problem. Well, that’s not entirely true. Last winter, we had an exceptionally frigid day preceded by plunging temperatures overnight. I had windshield wiper fluid that said it was good all the way down to -20 (-4 Fahrenheit). Well, that morning, when I left for work, my lines were frozen. At first, I thought it was just me and that it was just because the side of the house I park on doesn’t get any morning sun (when there is morning sun). So, I scraped all of the ice off of my windows, cleared the holes where the fluid comes out the best I could, and started driving. I kept trying the fluid every couple of minutes, and eventually, the lines unfroze and I could spray the windshield. Well, I got onto the Autobahn, everything was working fine, and then suddenly the lines froze up again. Within seconds, I was driving blind from all of the salt that had coated the windshield. Luckily, there was a rest area at the next exit, so I pulled over.
There were at least a dozen other cars also pulled over. Several people were standing next to their cars, and I started talking to the man who was parked next to me. He said everyone had frozen lines. I told him I was from Texas and had no idea what to do in this situation, and he said the best thing to do is park the car so that the sun shines on the windshield and just wait for them to unfreeze, continually trying the fluid. His lines unfroze, so he left, and I kept doing what he had told me. Finally, they unfroze, and I started driving again. But within 15 minutes or so, they froze up AGAIN. I tell you, there are few things in life as terrifying as driving down the Autobahn with a solid white film over your windshield.
I called my husband in a panic, and he told me to try to find a gas station. Luckily, the exit where I had pulled off had a gas station. He told me to look for buckets of water. He said the gas stations always put them out. I found them, but they were inside the gas station. The ladies working there said they couldn’t put them outside because they might freeze. These buckets had water and squeegees, so I used that to clean my windshield. That got me back on the road for another 20 minutes or so until the lines froze up again. This time, however, I learned a new trick.
Every car was having the same problem, so everywhere I pulled over, there were at least 10 or so people. As I sat there, trying not to cry, I saw the guy behind me picking up snow from the side of the road and throwing it on his windshield. He got back in his car and started to pull out, so I ran up to his window. I asked him what he was doing because I couldn’t drive more than 10 or so miles at a time. He told me to keep my windshield defroster turned up to the highest setting and throw a few handfuls of snow onto the windshield. He said the heat from the defroster would melt the snow, so to wait a few seconds, and then turn the windshield wipers on. He said that would wash the salt off of the windshield. I did it, and it worked!
My lines kept freezing all the way to the university, but I just pulled over at the next exit, threw some snow on the windshield, and I was good to go. Genius.
I also noticed that several people had water bottles filled with windshield wiper fluid that they sprayed on their windshields. This winter, I will probably keep such a water bottle in my car just to be safe.
Stressing on the Autobahn
If you’re on the Autobahn, and you’re stressing because it’s dark and foggy and the cars are throwing salt and water onto your windshield, get in the slow(est) lane and drive as slow as you need to. My husband always tells me that I should only drive speeds I feel confident at. He said not to pace the other cars or feel pressured to drive faster because those drivers might be more experienced or have different features on their cars. And I have to admit, there are a lot of German drivers who also don’t love winter driving on the Autobahn. There have been many times where I’ve putted along in a line of German cars doing 80 -100 in the slow lane (about 50 – 60 mph).
And while it might be tempting to stay in the slow lane no matter what, you should try to get out from behind any semis. They drive very slow, which is nice, but they kick up so much water that it’s like driving underwater. As much as I hate having to speed up and pass people when the weather is so bad, I will pass the semis. I didn’t in the beginning, but I found that staying behind them was far more stressful than passing them.
You should also keep the radio on so that you can hear the traffic reports. They will talk about the roads between every couple of songs and pass along any warnings about streets that are especially slick or dangerous. You should be familiar with the German terms, so that you can understand what the risks are.
- Glatteis (sounds like “glott-ice”) = black ice
- Blitzeis (sounds like “blitz-ice”) = ice that forms rapidly on the road
- Eisregen (sounds like “ice-ray-gen”) = this is freezing rain – it usually forms the Blitzeis
- Schneeglätte (sounds like “shnee-glettuh”) = snow that has been worn down into a thin layer of ice
- Matsch (sounds like “much”) = slush
Know that it does get a little bit easier
This year will be my fourth winter in Germany, and although I still absolutely hate driving in this weather, it has gotten a tiny bit easier. I don’t panic quite so much, and I make fewer hysterical phone calls to my husband with each passing year.
Hopefully, my experiences and the tips I’ve picked up along the way will help some of you to feel a little better on the roads this year, too.