No matter how much climate change has made fall feel like summer, no matter how little frost you’ve seen, no matter how much golfing you’ve done in November, remember this one inescapable reality: Winter is coming.
That’s not winter is coming as in the carnage-filled Game of Thrones winter, but it is coming with freezing temperatures, blowing snow, sleet and ice that will challenge every driver’s skills to the utmost.
On second thought, maybe it’s not that far removed from Game of Thrones.
The fact is that you’re going to have to be prepared for what winter throws at you, steeling yourself with the right equipment and knowledge to avoid ending up in a ditch or at the body shop.
Here’s how to get through the next few months without calling your insurance agent.
Right said tread: It’s been said and written a million times, but the most important part of your vehicle in winter is your tires. And, in a country where winter usually means ice and deep snow, your best bet is winter tires.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but apparently not. According to Michelin, one in three Canadian vehicles isn't equipped with winter tires during the dark months.
The main reason, according to a recent survey, was that drivers believed that so-called all-season tires were as good as winter tires.
“Your tires are the only part of your vehicle that actually touches the road in winter,” Michelin driving expert Carl Nadeau says. “Making sure your vehicle is equipped with the right set of winter tires is integral to your road safety.”
Of course, Michelin and other tire manufacturers are in the business of selling as many tires as possible, so you might expect them to say this. But there are more than enough proven studies that show nothing is better for winter than winter tires.
A recent test by Kal Tire showed that a new premium winter tire substantially outperformed all-season tires in braking on ice and cornering in snow. But more surprising was the finding that a winter tire with 75-per-cent wear stopped 2.6 metres sooner than a new all-season tire at 30 km/h on ice.
Cornering on snow, it performed 4.6 per cent better.
Slow hand: The key to winter driving is simple: slow down. While this will appeal to most drivers the same way criticism appeals to Donald Trump, experts say a decrease in speed is the No. 1 factor in avoiding winter woes.
“Everything needs to slow down,” says advanced driving instructor Richard Warrington, of Comox, B.C. “It’s not just speed, it’s the way you handle the controls. You don’t accelerate as fast on snow or ice. You don’t brake as hard.
“Don’t steer quickly. It destabilizes the car and you start sliding out. Steer under control.”
Expand your horizons: The biggest mistake most drivers make is looking only 50 metres or so down the road. Fewer surprises reduce the chances of needing to brake or steer at the last second.
Be aware of your surroundings and look for things such as shadows from trees or poles that could indicate the presence of black ice.
“One of the first things we teach is looking ahead and looking for options on where you want to steer the car if there’s trouble,” Warrington says. “When people go into a skid or whatever, they tend to fixate on what they don’t want to hit and often drive straight into it.”
Take note of temperatures, too. Black ice usually forms between 3 C and -3 C, or when it’s cold and sunny.
Getting the brakes: Proper braking applies to all driving, but takes on more importance in winter.
“People tend to save their hardest braking for the very end,” Warrington says. “What you want to do is get that done first. Once you’ve slowed down, that gives you options. If you don’t, you’re going too fast to manoeuvre.”
On the skids: By looking ahead, you should avoid skids, but inevitably the conditions will put you in one. If you do, follow the key advice in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic. Or you can follow Warrington’s mantra: Correct, pause and recover (CPR) to avoid needing CPR.
“If you feel the back end start to come out on you, steer as fast as you can toward the back end,” he says. “Pause, then steer slowly back to get the car under control. Steer in the direction you want to go.”
The recovery phase is where people get into trouble, he says.
“They tend to steer quickly the second time. That whips the car around the other way and that’s where you get fish-tailing.
Remove your feet from the pedals, although if your vehicle has passed 90 degrees you should apply the brakes slowly.
An ice time: If you hit ice, get off the pedals, don’t steer and stay calm, Warrington says. If that doesn’t work, steer in a straight line toward a ditch or snowbank. Your landing will be softer than hitting another car.
Deep trouble: If you’re driving on a country road and suddenly hit a deep wind-blown snowdrift, slow down, Nadeau says. When you do, turn on your hazard lights to warn those behind you to avoid being rear-ended. “People behind you may not be aware of what’s going on,” he says.
Dress for success: Nadeau suggests a less-is-more approach. You may need those parkas, hats, scarves and gloves before getting into the car, but at the wheel, they only serve to restrict your movement and vision.
Packing your trunk: Like a Boy Scout, be prepared. Make sure your trunk contains a first-aid kit, windshield-wiper fluid, booster cables, traction mats or cat litter (unused preferably), a shovel, flashlight, road flares, a blanket, candle or other heating device – in case you’re stranded.
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