Winter driving in Chicago can be tricky, but we've got a few simple reminders to help prepare you for the worst our winters can throw at the roads. Photo By: Eli Duke via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A Helpful Refresher on Chicago Winter Driving (And Parking) Basics

December in Chicagoland: The leaves are gone from the trees; the snowbirds are packed and ready to head south; and the first snowfall reminds us that we have all forgotten the basics of winter driving. The first snow of the season, which dropped 0.4 inches at O’Hare on November 11, seemed to catch drivers off guard.

Don’t worry. We have a few simple reminders to help prepare you for the worst our winters can throw at the roads. And just in time, too. According to, the long-range forecast calls for above-average snow this season.

Slow down. It just makes sense.

It goes without saying that snowy, slippery conditions call for caution. As the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) points out, you want to stay within the limits of your vision—in other words, don’t drive so fast that you can’t see where you’re going in bad weather. You also want to start slow and brake gently to avoid skids, so you need to allow more time and space to stop when you brake.

The City of Chicago used to make slowing down on North Lake Shore Drive mandatory each winter, cutting the speed limit to 40 mph from 45 during the winter months (eventually, 40 mph stuck and is now the year-round speed limit). However, the idea of exercising more caution on the Drive (and all areas roads) during the winter makes sense, no matter the reason.

That’s not a sidewalk sale, it’s a parking space.

Photo By: vxla via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
There’s a long tradition of saving parking spots with brooms and other household objects in Chicago. Photo By: vxla via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

If you’re parked on the street when a big snow hits, it can take you hours of back-breaking work to dig your car out. So it is understandable that you would want to be able to park in that space again when you get home. WITHIN REASON.

In Chicago, there’s a long tradition of people saving their street parking spots with anything from chairs and house plants to garden gnomes and, say, the random bust of Elvis.

So, what’s the etiquette? Well, you can follow the golden rule and think of what you would have others do unto you if you had shoveled the space out. Or, in the words of former Mayor Richard M. Daley: “If someone spends all that time digging their car out, do not drive in that spot. This is Chicago. Fair warning.”

If you’re saving the space, make sure you actually dug it out. No “dibs” if you didn’t do any work. And move the furniture/landscaping/art project when the plows come to try to clear the entire street.

Watch for signs of winter (snow route signs, that is).

Even if it’s a balmy 60 degrees out, you still need to be careful where you park in the city from December 1 through April 1. The City of Chicago has an overnight parking ban on more than 100 miles of major streets, regardless of snowfall, in order to be able quickly clear those roads in case of an overnight storm. This year, more than 230 vehicles were towed the first night the ban went into effect.

The city also has another 500 miles of streets that are snow routes. Parking can be banned on those streets when there are two or more inches of snow.

Weatherize your car.

The weather can change quickly around here. Make sure your car is ready. IDOT has some tips, including regularly checking and maintaining wipers, tires, lights and fluid levels. In case of an emergency, they recommend keeping a car kit that includes an alternate power supply for your cell phone, flashlight and batteries and some extra food and water in case you get stranded.

Listen to what you’re told.

Don’t try to tough it out. If authorities say it’s going to be rough driving out there, or that it may not be a good idea to drive on some roads, find an alternate route or stay inside. Just ask the hundreds of drivers who were stranded for hours on Lake Shore Drive during the blizzard of February 2011.

Pay attention to weather watches, warnings and advisories before heading out—a weather alert service can help by sending notification via text message or email.

Recommended by the Editors: