I got my driver’s licence in 2019, but I’ve never driven in winter. Last winter, I didn’t have a car because I wasn’t going very far during the pandemic. I now have a car, but we just had some snow here and I’m a little afraid to drive. I just keep hearing “drive carefully,” but I don’t really understand what that means. What’s the most important thing I need to know about winter driving? – Chris, Edmonton
On snowy roads, let it slow.
If you are travelling at the speed limit on lousy winter roads, you’re probably going too fast, according to safety experts.
“I would say the most dangerous thing drivers do in winter is driving too fast for conditions,” says Ward Vanlaar, chief operating officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). “In winter or other inclement weather conditions, the speed limit might well be too high – so no, the speed limit is not necessarily slow enough.”
Speed limits are set for ideal conditions. That means clean, dry roads with good visibility. In every province, you can get a speeding ticket for going the speed limit – or even under the limit – if a police officer thinks you’re going too fast for road conditions.
“I try to keep 10 to 15 km/h below the speed limit in snow and rain,” says Lewis Smith, manager of national projects with the Canada Safety Council (CSC). “We’ve seen that the main cause of winter collisions is drivers driving too fast for conditions – in areas with a lot of traffic, there tends to be a domino effect.”
Snow, ice, rain and even cold roads make it harder to stop. Winter tires help your car stick better to winter roads. While they can reduce your stopping distance by nearly half on icy roads, they’re still not magic. The faster you’re going, even with winter tires, the longer it will take you to stop.
“Nobody wants to feel like they’re impeding traffic, so they drive at the speeds they’re comfortable with [in the summer],” Smith says. “If they get in a collision, that ends up impeding traffic in a different way.”
Higher speeds also boost your chances of losing control, even if you’re not in the middle of a snowstorm. Roads that are clear of snow and visible ice may still be too slippery for higher speeds.
Bad habits more dangerous in winter?
“Regardless of the weather, speeding is a problem,” says Pamela Fuselli, president and chief executive office of Parachute, a non-profit that focuses on injury prevention. “In the winter, it’s speeding combined with not being aware of the road conditions – you’re not anticipating that it will take longer to stop [or that] your ability to control the vehicle changes.”
Bad habits such as distracted driving or following too closely are even more dangerous in the winter because you, and the cars around you, have reduced control and braking ability. You need to pay attention to the road ahead and to the cars around you. If other cars are sliding, you might, too.
You also need to stay further away from the car in front of you on winter roads than you would in the summer.
“Normally, we say to keep a following distance of two to four seconds,” says Ryan Lemont, manager of driver education at the Alberta Motor Association (AMA). “In winter, you might increase that to four to six seconds – give lots of room.”
To determine how closely you’re following, find a marker along the road, such as a traffic sign. When the car in front of you passes it, start counting. In the winter, it should take you at least four seconds to pass the same object.
That gives you more room to brake and manoeuvre if the car in front of you suddenly stops or starts losing control.
What other mistakes do drivers make on winter roads?
“One of the most dangerous mistakes is overconfidence in your vehicle’s ability or your ability as a driver,” Lemont says. “You might have a misplaced sense of security.”
While all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD) can keep you from getting stuck in deep snow, it won’t improve braking distance or handling. It also won’t keep you from losing control, Lemont says.
“Having AWD or winter tires don’t make you immune to winter,” Lemont says. “Winter tires will get you improved handling, but they’re not meant to make you impervious.”
The CSC’s website has a list of winter driving tips. While a few might seem obvious, even some seasoned winter drivers make mistakes during the first couple of snowfalls.
“We’ll see a fair amount of drivers coming at winter driving with the mentality of spring driving,” Lewis says. “We see higher speeds, more aggressive turns and less space between vehicles.”
Plus, if you didn’t drive much last winter because of the COVID-19 pandemic, your driving skills might be especially rusty, he adds.
“The big issue we’re going to be seeing is that folks haven’t been on the roads. So a lot of bad habits haven’t had a chance to be corrected.”
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