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Snow-covered car? Remember to clear more than the windows before heading out on the road. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Snow-covered car? Remember to clear more than the windows before heading out on the road. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

The seven sins of winter driving Add to ...

Some of my favourite university classes were with clergyman professors who loved to theorize about the nature of sin. As I learned, the subject is rife with nuance and gradation. Catholicism divides sin into two categories, for example: the Venial (bad but forgivable) and the Mortal (the kind that condemns you to an eternal stay in the fires of Hell.)

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Some of what I learned in the sunlit halls of the University of King’s College has been forgotten (I know St. Thomas Aquinas focused on the relationship between faith and reason, but don’t ask me for specifics). But the professors did leave me with an abiding taste for philosophy, although I tend to apply their theories to cars and driving instead of theology.

So as a tribute to my influential, black-gowned academic mentors, I present my list of the Seven Deadly Winter Driving Sins:

1. Slothful

You must clear snow off every surface of your car, not just the windows. This path is not just of virtue, but of survival. The slothful driver leaves snow on the roof and hood, which can blow into the path of other vehicles, causing a crash. (It can also slide down over the windshield, rendering the slothful driver temporarily blind.) The slothful also leave snow on their boots – the snow then melts onto the floor, turns into water, and fogs up the windows when the defrosting system picks up the airborne moisture. A crash may follow (not to mention possible eternal damnation).

2. Aggressive

Spinning wheels and tailgating are signs of one who has fallen from the path of winter driving virtue. In cold conditions, stopping distances are multiplied, and cornering traction is limited. A calm, beatific approach works best (think Gandhi). Leave at least 10 seconds of distance between yourself and the traffic in front – you may need it. Gentle acceleration maintains traction and maximizes control. Spinning wheels kill traction, and are definitely a winter driving sin (venial, possibly even mortal, depending on what’s ahead).

3. Shortsighted

Expert drivers look far down the road. This becomes more important when conditions turn slippery. Focusing on the area immediately in front of your car creates a series of problems. First, you will tend to overcontrol, because the visual angle between you and the objects you’re focusing on changes rapidly if you slide or turn. Second, it limits your ability to spot problems that may be developing ahead of you (such as a car that’s starting to slide out of control). Third, it compromises your ability to recover from a skid: For proper control, you need to focus on a distant reference point.

4. Panicked

Even on glare ice, there is traction and control to be found. But if you panic, this goes out the window – slamming on the brakes and holding the wheel in a death grip breaks your tires connection with the road. When it comes to winter driving, a light grip is next to Godliness.

5. Ignorant

For the oblivious driver, the world of winter driving is filled with hazards. The ignorant driver doesn’t realize that it will be icy when temperatures rise above freezing, then fall again, creating a thaw-and-freeze cycle. The ignorant driver fails to understand that bridges freeze before the rest of the road because there’s no earth beneath them to slow down the rate of cooling. The ignorant driver is oblivious to the fact that shadowed areas remain icy after the rest of the road warms and thaws, and that an open spot past a hill or line of trees line may be ridged with drifting snow. Nor does the ignorant driver understand the physics of a vehicle – you are riding in a block of metal that is attached to the road by four small patches of rubber, and every input you make (braking, steering, or acceleration) adds to the demands made on them. The surest cure for ignorance is a winter drive.

6. Unprepared

This can manifest itself in many forms. One of the cardinal sins of unpreparedness is not using winter tires, which can reduce stopping distances by up to 50 per cent in cold conditions. Other sins of unpreparedness include worn-out wiper blades, failing to top up the fuel tank and windshield washer reservoir before a trip, travelling without winter clothing and a cellphone, and neglecting to carry a winter survival kit. Your survival kit should include jumper cables, a reflective triangle, a shovel, sand or kitty litter (to help you get unstuck), blankets, a flashlight, and an emergency candle that can warm your car’s interior. (If you really want to play it safe, buy a personal locator beacon that can send an alert to emergency services by satellite and guide them you with GPS co-ordinates.)

7. Feeling invincible (a.k.a. All-Wheel-Drive Pride)

A four-wheel-drive vehicle does not make you immune to the laws of physics. In slippery conditions, an all-wheel-drive vehicle doesn’t stop or turn any better than one with two wheel drive. Four wheel drive does improve traction while accelerating, however, which makes far easier to reach speeds that are beyond your vehicle’s turning and braking capabilities. (As the Bible says, the wages of sin is death.)

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