Best way to test road conditions

I live in Vermont, and often need to know how slippery the roads are. I do this by gently hitting the brakes, to see if the ABS comes on. So far, this has not caused any problems for me, but it could be alarming to those driving behind me. Another approach I considered was doing a gentle slalom. Any thoughts as to the best (most reliable and least dangerous) way to test for road traction while driving?

What I do is to hit the brake fairly hard while on my own residential street, after first checking to verify that there is no traffic behind me.

Since the normal amount of traffic on my street is very light (perhaps 20 cars per hour), the probability of someone driving in back of me right after I exit my driveway is remote, but I do check my mirror all the same. If I have traction problems on my street, then that has a direct effect on the speed at which I drive, how much room I leave between me and the car in front, how I brake and accelerate…

You could find a deserted parking lot near you and test to your hearts content. We used a large department store parking lot (out of business) in Maine to do our winter driving tests. You will quickly learn the limits of your vehicle and your own driving skills.

Missileman–What you suggest is a very good idea in terms of learning both the handling ability of one’s car and how to maneuever it when it goes into a skid. However, the OP wants to know how to assess the amount of available traction on the road. By the time that most people drive to the nearest deserted parking lot, they probably have already figured out how slippery the roads are and how well their car is handling in those slippery conditions.

I do what VDCdriver does. I wouldn’t brake for no reason with people behind me. Wait for traffic to break before pulling out of your driveway or parking space and this shouldn’t be an issue.

JonBondy…you do well. That is a very reasonable way to test footing. The only thing I would add, is that you do it frequently (relatively speaking) as conditions appear to change. And, safely with no cars close enough to be compromised by the maneuver. Otherwise, keep up the good work.

I too, use a stab at the brakes and accelerator to test the road. I add to that slightly sharp cornering too.
– But don’t wait for it to snow. –
WET asphalt can be just as bad.
And the frost that’s on your widshield…is on the pavement too.

I do sometimes test traction with a quick and solid pop on the brake petal. If it is quick you won’t start a skid. I make sure there is no traffic around me all at. Mostly when I’m in snow I like to test traction when accelerating from a stop or near stop. This is a decent gauge of traction, but conditions change rapidly so there isn’t any real test that is valid overall.

Brake checks and accelerating checks are useful but once you experience slipping, you simply need to adjust speed downwards. Speed is no longer the priority; rather it is getting to wherever safely and taking more time to do so is just what you accept to be safe.

It really depends on where I am and what speed I’m going but a quick tap on the accellerator to see if the wheel spins is what I do, plus a quick jab on the brakes. Problem is that conditions change quite a bit and most of the time the problem is on the freeway where you have no idea how slippery it is in time. The girl I used to commute with would bring the car up to a speed where the rear end would lose its bite and then back down just under that. I was not too enthused when she did that.

I just back out of the driveway. It’s on a hill and isn’t treated or shoveled at 5:45AM, so it’s a good test. I also have hills in every direction to get out of the neighborhood. If I get to the main roads, there’s never a problem.

I would highly recommend against performing traction tests by swerving your car around.
What happens if you suddenly have nearly 0 traction, and go skidding off into oncoming traffic?

As for hitting your brakes while in traffic, all the other motorists are going to look at you wondering if you’re nuts, when they see you braking for no apparent reason.

If you feel uncomfortable driving in these conditions, maybe you should car pool with someone else from work, and have them do the driving. The other motorists on the road would thank you.


I have not seen this yet, but If no one is around I will do test stops, checking braking operation by more aggressively using brakes while pulling up to a stop sign, or as they say in WI a stop and go light. Winter driving is a matter of knowing your limits. So I test more aggressive stops starts in safe areas just to find what the limits of road conditions are.

It is always a good idea to remember that road conditions usually vary a great deal from one place to another. Just 50 meters away from nice dry safe roads may be black ice, invisible but deadly. Always drive like it is worse than you think. In just a few seconds, that nice solid pavement may be ice.

Note: I was involved in a 17 car dual fatality accident some years ago. I lost two teeth, but I learned a lot in those minutes.


Joseph is exactly right. Never lose your concentration when driving especially in the winter. The unexpected will get you if you don’t watch out. Drive slower, know the limits of yourself and your vehicle. Don’t speed up just because you have 4WD or AWD. They are great to have but they also provide a sense of false security to a lot of drivers.

I like to say “drive carefully until you get to a stop”. After that it is easy to find out by trying to go forward. Conditions in other places may vary but the best advice is to avoid speeding. Slow down at the top of a hill before going down, not at the base of one when you are trying to climb. Always be suspicious of the road condition on curves.

I do something similar, hitting my brakes hard on my own street, then seeing how easy it is to spin the tires when taking off. This of course would be a silly thing to do when in traffic.

And, all of this is why I dislike antilock brakes and traction control.
When I do these things, the know-it-all computer takes over and I can not truly tell the conditions and the truck’s relative capabilities.
Maybe that’s why I liked the old 92 Explorer better in adverse conditions.
– I – had full control over the vehicle.