Why Are My Wiper Blades Smearing the Windshield?

Maintenance can improve sightlines and blade longevity

wipers streaking on windshield
Wipers that are smearing, streaking and not working. Getty

We tend to think about windshield wipers only when we need them—when it's raining or snowing. There's nothing worse than turning on your wipers only to have them make it even harder for you to see. This can be frustrating, but it's also a serious safety concern: If your wipers aren't doing a good job of cleaning the windshield, you might not be able to clearly see other cars, pedestrians, signs, and road obstacles. The worst outcome is an accident.

Potential Causes and Fixes

Smearing, streaking, and dead spots are symptoms of poor wiper performance. If your wiper blades are old— dry, brittle, or damaged—it's time for new blades. But if you've replaced them recently and they aren't doing the job, here are some potential causes:

  • Perpetually Filthy Windshield. If your windshield is always dirty, your wiper blades are working harder and sustaining damage every time you turn them on. Cleaning the windshield when you fill up with gas will give you a fresh start. Even the windshield outside the wiping area should be clean.
  • Dirty Wiper Blades. Your wiper blades need cleaning, too. Wiping them down from time to time will make them much more efficient and extend their life.
  • Cracked or Chipped Windshield. Damage to the smooth surface of your windshield can wear away at the rubber blades and reduce performance. Repair chips and cracks that are possible and reasonable to fix.
  • Worn Windshield. A windshield with a lot of miles on it will lose its glassy smoothness. Under a microscope, it can almost appear porous. Not only does a pockmarked windshield cause more wear to your windshield wiper blades, but all those tiny divots in the glass also can interfere with the squeegee action your blades use to wipe away the water. If the damage is bad enough, it might be time to replace the windshield. If not, glass treatment products such as Rain-X can help the moisture form beads that are easily wiped away and make it easier for the blades to remove ice, salt, mud, and bugs.
  • Dry Wiping. Any time your wiper blades slide across a dry windshield they can sustain damage. Water acts as a lubricant to make the blades glide easily across the glass and squeegee away moisture and bugs. Using the blades when the windshield is almost dry, such as clearing mist or salt spray from the windshield, can be damaging, too. Before turning on your windshield wipers, use your windshield washer to wet the glass and loosen up anything that you might not want your wiper blades to drag across.
  • Snow or Ice Jams. During winter, snow and ice can build up in every corner or crevice of your wipers. When you're scraping your windshield, gently rub your gloved hand across the surface of the blade to remove frozen bits. Also check the area above the blade for chunks of ice that can cause a huge dead spot in your wiping area.

These steps take a little time, but they are worth it if they improve your line of sight and extend the performance of your wiper blades.