Thou Shalt Purchase Winter Tires
Few drivers understand winter tire design, or what "all-season" really means. All-season tires are a major compromise and can increase stopping distances in slippery conditions by more than 300 per cent compared with dedicated winter tires.
The key to maintaining traction in cold conditions is a tire made with rubber compounds that remains flexible when the temperature falls. Winter-tire engineers spend millions of dollars on rubber research and tread design and their work can save your life.
There are a number of top-quality winter tires on the market. To see which ones work best, consult an independent testing agency such as Consumer Reports.
Thou Shalt Be Aware of Winter's Tricks
Expert winter drivers are keenly aware of the traps Mother Nature can create. If the temperature climbs above the freezing point and falls again, snow can melt, then refreeze, creating areas of glare ice.
Be aware also that shadowed areas can remain icy even after other areas have thawed. Then there's the thermal difference between bridges and the rest of the road – bridges gain and lose temperature faster, so they are especially prone to icing.
Thou Shalt Not Place False Hope in All-Wheel Drive
Countless drivers believe all-wheel drive (AWD) increases traction and cancels the need for winter tires. Unfortunately, AWD only helps with acceleration. An AWD vehicle doesn't stop or corner any better than one with two-wheel drive.
This can lead an oblivious driver into a deadly trap – one in which the motorist builds up speed with the superior accelerative traction of AWD, then realizes that he or she can't stop or make it through a corner. AWD is excellent and can help drivers plow through snow that would stop other vehicles, but it's a convenience feature, not a safety improvement.
Thou Shalt Not Spin Thy Wheels
Spinning wheels are the surest sign of an incompetent winter driver, and they can quickly dig you into a hole that you may not be able to escape from without a tow truck.
If you're trying to get unstuck, use gentle throttle inputs and rock your car by shifting repeatedly between forward and reverse – the goal is to gradually build up momentum that will allow you to roll up and out of the rut you dug by desperately nailing the throttle.
Thou Shalt Remove All Snow From Thy Vehicle
Scraping your windshield isn't enough. Snow left on the hood can blow onto the windshield, blocking visibility and overloading the windshield wipers. Snow left on the roof may slide down when you hit the brakes – blind man's bluff, anyone? Headlights and taillights need to be clear. And when you get into the car after cleaning it off, kick the snow off your boots – if you don't, the heater will melt it, turning it into water vapour that fogs your windshield.
Thou Shalt Drive Smoothly
Your tire's four contact patches are your only connection to the road. Abrupt steering, braking or acceleration overload the contact patches and break traction, setting you up for a slide. Hold the wheel with a light grip and imagine that there is an egg between your feet and the pedals. Pro drivers can maintain traction even on glare ice – the secret is low speed and modulated control inputs.
Although smoothness pays off in every area of winter driving, it's particularly important in manoeuvres such as a lane change, where the ridge of snow and ice that builds up between lanes can snatch your wheels and throw your car out of control if you make the move abruptly. Slow, smooth movements maintain traction.
Thou Shalt Focus Far Ahead
As a general rule, your eyes should be focused on where your car will be in 12 seconds. In winter, this is more important, because your vision not only alerts to upcoming hazards, but changes the way you drive. Focusing far down the road reduces head movement and attenuates your steering inputs, reducing the chance of a slide.
Thou Shalt Not Despair When Thy Vehicle Doth Slide
In winter conditions, sliding is inevitable. Modern ABS and stability control systems minimize the impact of a slide, but driving technique still makes a major difference. Expert winter drivers stay safe by using fundamental skid-control techniques: maintain a light grip on the wheel, steer into the skid and keep your eyes aimed where you want to go.
To eliminate panic, practise sliding your car in an icy parking lot. Better yet, take a winter driving school course. Several manufacturers offer them, including BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. There are also independent winter driving courses, such as Ian Law's ILR Car Control School in Minden, Ont.
Thou Shalt Be Personally Prepared
Don't drive in heavy winter boots – you can't feel the pedals properly. Carry a fully charged cellphone in case you need to call for help. Keep warm clothes and a winter emergency kit in the car – it should include a shovel, a tow rope, a flashlight and blankets.
For extra safety in remote areas where you may not get cellphone reception, carry an emergency locator beacon like the SPOT 3 or Delorme InReach – these work by sending an emergency signal to a satellite network.
Thou Shalt Not Tailgate
When conditions turn slippery, stopping distances can increase by several orders of magnitude. Following distances should be increased to match the available traction.
On a dry summer road, the general rule of thumb is to leave one car length ahead of you for every 15 km/h of speed – at 120 km/h, for example, you should leave at least eight car lengths between you and the car ahead.
In winter conditions, you should double or triple this, depending on conditions.
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