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Driving Concerns

True or false: Should I put my car in neutral to stop on ice? Add to ...

I have been advised that putting a car into neutral when stopping on ice/snow enables the car to stop in a shorter distance. Is this true? Some people even put the car into neutral on dry roads in the belief that the stopping distance is shorter. I like having the option of adding gas if necessary to go around an obstacle. In neutral this eliminates that option. - Mark

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The advice is good – if you’re driving a 1977 Ford LTD.

But shifting to neutral won’t help you stop faster in a modern car – and it could make you lose control, driving experts say.

“In today’s world of Front Wheel Drive, All-Wheel Drive and ABS, putting the car into neutral has no effect on braking distance,” said Ian Law, chief instructor with ILR Car Control School. “ “Putting a vehicle into neutral to shorten stopping distances on ice and snow was the way to do it back in the days of vehicles with rear-wheel drive, no ABS and automatic transmissions – especially big American V8 cars and trucks with more than a ton of weight on the front tires.”

So, back when cars had vinyl roofs and opera lights, the front brakes of RWD cars would lock up while the engine continued to drive the rear wheels. The rear wheels would push the car to a longer stop. To shorten stopping distance you would shift into neutral – or really stomp on the brakes to lock all four wheels up, Law says.

But that was then. What if you try stopping in neutral now?

“In any vehicle there is always some forward push from the drive wheels when in gear, so yes, perhaps you’d see a tiny decrease in forward momentum – it’s probably imperceptible to most drivers,” says Steve Greiner with the Motorport Club of Ottawa, which has a winter driving school. “But any gain is easily lost by the sudden weight transfer to the front of the car as you remove power from the drive wheels – this could easily upset the car and induce a skid.”

Greiner’s advice?

“Leave the car in gear, you never know when you may have to make a quick maneuver for a surprise event,” Greiner said. “A momentary delay in getting the car back into gear can mean many meters travelled down the road.”

And Law says you’ll need to be in gear if the rear end of your FWD, AWD, or 4WD vehicle starts to slide while you’re stopping on slippery roads.

“The driver needs to apply some gas to gently accelerate the vehicle and pull it out of this skid,” Law says.

So if putting your car into neutral won’t shorten stops, what will?

“Have four top quality winter tires installed and most importantly, slow down and look farther up the road,” Law said. “Doubling your speed quadruples your stopping distance – so driving slower by just 5 or 10 km/h makes a noticeable difference in how far it takes to stop.”

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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