When the driving gets tough, a quiet voice sometimes plays in the back of my head. I hear it most often in winter, when snow and ice up the ante.
The voice says things like: “Careful – that guy ahead is going to hit that frozen rut and go sideways,” or “Watch out for that shadowed spot by the trees. There’s going to be ice there.”
That voice has saved me many times, and it belongs to the best driver I ever knew – my father.
Even though he died in 1999, my dad still rides with me every day. His lessons began when I was a little boy, steering a metal toy truck along the sidewalk. By the time I was a teenager, my dad was schooling me in the subtleties of the clutch, the right way to hold the steering wheel, and the endless joys and dangers of the road.
Winter driving was a topic unto itself. My father taught me about emergency kits, rocking a car to get it unstuck, and why you should have two sets of wheels and tires – one for summer, one for winter. He showed me how to thaw a frozen engine. He took me to a ice-covered parking lot where he threw our old Mercury into a long slide, and demonstrated the correct recovery technique.
I’ve learned from other great drivers over the years. Some have been racers. Some have been professional driving instructors. Some were long-haul truckers who had survived more miles than most drivers would cover in 10 lifetimes. So when the snow fell this year, I decided it was time to list some of the winter driving wisdom I’ve been lucky enough to receive.
Smoothness is everything: Use light pressure on the accelerator, brakes and steering wheel. Make your hands move slowly. Abrupt movements will break traction and start a skid.
Keep your eyes focused far ahead: You are a human stability control system, and vision is key to its proper operation. Looking far down the road reduces head movement and moderates your steering inputs, reducing the chance of a slide.
Kick the snow off your boots before you get in the car: If you don’t, it will melt inside the car, turn into water vapour, and fog the windows.
Remove the snow from every surface of your car, not just the windows: Snow on the hood and front end can blow up onto the windshield as you accelerate. Snow on the roof can fall down over the back window – or slide forward under braking, covering the windshield like a blindfold.
Keep your lights on all the time: That way, other vehicles can see you better.
Newer cars stop and handle better on ice than old ones do: Late-model cars have multi-channel ABS systems that can stop you much shorter than old-school systems. Late-model cars also have electronic stability control systems that can apply corrective braking to individual wheels if you start to slide sideways.
Switch on the air conditioning: It removes moisture from the cabin air, improving defroster performance.
Stay behind a snowplow or salt truck: It’s safer than passing it.
Turn off cruise control: You need to respond instantly if you start losing traction.
Change lanes slowly and smoothly: The ridge of snow that builds up between lanes will grab your wheels, so you need to minimize your steering angle.
If you skid: Keep your eyes aimed where you want to go, and steer toward that point.
Be extra careful when the thermometer is yo-yoing: If the temperature climbs above the freezing point and falls again, snow can melt, then turn into glare ice.
Do some test sliding: Go to an empty parking lot and try sliding your car so you’ll know what it feels like. This will help create a conditioned response and allow you to react properly when you slide unexpectedly.
Keep two sets of wheels: One with summer tires, the other with dedicated winter tires. Switch them slightly ahead of the coming season.
Beware the all-season tire: They’re okay in summer, but they don’t come close to winter tires on snow and ice. The difference in acceleration, cornering and stopping power can range from five to 20 per cent, depending on your car, technique conditions. That improvement may spell the difference between crashing and getting home.
The most important feature of winter tires isn’t their more aggressive tread: What really matters most is their special rubber compound, which keeps them soft at lower temperatures, increasing traction.
Use winter tires on all four wheels: Many drivers still believe that you only need winter tires on the driven wheels. Wrong. Although the driven wheels are key to acceleration, braking and cornering call for traction at all four corners. Mixing winter and non-winter tires creates a dangerous traction imbalance that can throw you out of control.
Carry a cell phone: Keep it charged. Don’t use it while you’re driving.
Don’t wear clunky winter boots: You need to feel the pedals.
Don’t spin your wheels if you get stuck: This digs you in deeper. Rock the car gently back and forth by shifting into forward and reverse, building momentum so you can escape.
Go slow: Snow and ice increase stopping distance and reduce cornering power. The posted limit may be too fast for winter conditions.
Multiply your following distance: In summer, most drivers allow a two- to three-second gap behind traffic. This is calculated by counting how long it takes you to reach an object after the car in front passes it. In slippery conditions, you should triple or quadruple this.
Four-wheel drive won’t help you stop faster: Unfortunately, it does let you accelerate faster (this isn’t always a good thing).
Beware of sun-shadowed areas: Even if the road is clear, shadowed areas may icy, since they’re sheltered from the sun. Ice isn’t as slippery as you think – if you have good car-control skills and proper winter tires, an icy surface can offer more traction than you’d expect. But it takes experience to use it properly.
Bridges are dangerous: They cool faster than the road, so they’re more slippery in cold weather.
When you stop for fuel: Clean your windows and rearview mirrors, plus your head and taillights.
Keep your windshield washer fluid topped up: You may need it.
Take a winter driving course: You’d be amazed at how much you can learn from professionals.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
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