If you can’t take a specialized training course, here’s some basic advice professional instructors recommend to stay safe on snowy and icy roads.
1. ‘All-wheel drive isn’t a safety feature’
“One of the big things is to help drivers understand that all-wheel drive is not a safety feature,” says Ian Law, president of the ILR Car Control School, which runs a winter driving course in Minden, Ontario. “It seems to be mostly Subaru and Audi owners. When you tell them that, they look at you as if you just told them their mother was an alien or something.
“It’s when we get them out on a skid pad and they realize they can’t steer any better or stop any better than a two-wheel drive vehicle, that’s when the light goes on for them. You’ll be able to get going better, but it’s stopping and steering that will save your life.”
2. Look where you want to go
Law teaches how to stop and how to steer on slippery roads, and he says to always look where you want to go, not where you’re actually going. This is sound advice for driving at any time of the year, but if you find your wheels skidding, look at the road, not at the ditch.
“Look where you want to go and your hands will follow your eyes” on the steering wheel, says Law.
Jeff McKague agrees – he’s president of Event Matrix in Cobourg, Ont., and a performance driving instructor, and he remembers a former student calling over to him at the Toronto auto show one year, saying “Jeff! It happened and it saved me!”
“We teach that if an object suddenly appears in front of you, your immediate reaction as a normal human being is to slam the brakes on and then to steer around the object, but the key part is to look away from the object in order to be able to do that. If you can peel your eyes away, you’ll find the opening where you need to go.
“This guy told me he was coming down a hill toward a traffic light and the road was more slippery than he anticipated. When his brakes locked up, the panic ensued, but the next thing he knew, he was beside the truck he thought he was going to hit and laughing his head off. He’d done exactly what he’d been taught to do.”
3. Threshold braking
Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have been mandatory on new cars sold in Canada since the 2012 model year, and they’re significantly better than they used to be. When ABS senses an individual wheel is locked and skidding, it releases the brakes on that wheel, many times each second if necessary. This allows a vehicle to be steered while braking hard because a wheel must rotate in order to steer.
The latest generations of ABS don’t even allow the wheel to lock before releasing it, but for many systems that do permit a certain amount of skidding before releasing, a trained driver can stop more efficiently on a slippery road using threshold braking.
“Threshold braking is a firm, progressive pressure on the brake pedal, (where) we’re braking as much as we can to that threshold limit” before easing momentarily on the brake, explains Martin Wiseman in Calgary, chief instructor for the Alberta Motor Association.
On dry pavement, having ABS and standing on the brake pedal will stop the vehicle in the shortest distance, but on slippery pavement in winter, threshold braking is more effective.
“When we’re out on the track,” says Wiseman, “I say to students, ‘build the speed up to 50 and then I want you stamping on that brake pedal’. (When) we’re on snow and ice and they slam down on the brake pedal and they’re amazed how long it takes them to stop. Then we try it again with threshold braking, where we’re keeping rotary motion in the wheel, and the stopping distance is so greatly reduced.”
4. Create space
The real key, however, is to leave yourself enough space from other traffic to be able to make these manoeuvres around those vehicles.
“It’s just like in hockey, where they say the good players create space in which they can make manoeuvres,” says Jim Brazil, an instructor trainer for the Canada Safety Council in St. John’s.
“The one thing you can control is your ‘I need space’ time, and the opportunity to be able to make decisions. Driving is all about making decisions, but the brain is not automatic and not instant. I teach here that in normal conditions, you give yourself at least three seconds (driving distance from the vehicle in front). That takes care of the time you need for perception and reaction, and then to implement the decision you’re going to make.
“I’ve had people tell me that you’d never get away with three seconds on the 401 (highway in Ontario), and I always say, yes, but I’m teaching you here in Newfoundland and you can give yourself three seconds here. And when someone takes it away, you recreate it. Being too close creates a problem, and being too close in winter driving creates a bigger problem because of your stopping distance, so increase your time.”
5. ‘Do an ego check’
And above all, when the roads are slippery, slow down.
“Do an ego check,” says Law of the ILR Car Control School. “Too many drivers think they can show everybody else how good they are when conditions get slick. Somebody else is going more slowly and they think, ‘this idiot doesn’t know how to drive in snow, get out of my way and I’ll show you how to do it.’
“We like to remind drivers that every time you pass somebody on a snowy, miserable day, not one driver stops to think, ‘wow, I wish I could drive like him.’ Every driver thinks, ‘that idiot’s going to be in the ditch soon.’ Every driver. No exceptions.”