It was a clear but cold morning – the kind that makes many wonder why we live in this climate. Yet the driving conditions were good and the roads were dry. I'm at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition grounds for a session in Michelin's Winter Driving Academy. The one-hour lesson is intended to prepare drivers for the worst winter conditions (there's an online version on YouTube). We're talking slippery streets, sudden stops and the occasional moose. To mimic these perils, Michelin has constructed a skid pad that will imitate a stretch of treacherous icy road.
I think I'm ready for winter's challenges but as I settle in behind the wheel of my front-wheel drive sedan (one fitted with Michelin X-Ice Winter Tires), my confidence wanes. I'm seated next to Carl Nadeau, 41, a professional driver and a celebrity on the French-Canadian automotive scene.
"You need to be aware of road conditions and you need to be ready," he says. I decide to keep a mental list of the top three lessons learned, a mental antidote to complacency. "Because when something does go wrong," he continues, "and you're not ready, you're spinning out on the road and the cars are coming in behind you. It's not good."
Nadeau describes "spinning out on the road and the cars are coming" as "not good." Nadeau is prone to understatement.
My first test is a straight stop on dry road. It goes fine – the ABS does its thing. Then it's time to hit the ice. I accelerate to 25 km/h, brake and skid. Nadeau reminds me to steer in the opposite direction of the spin. Point the wheels where you want to go. I manage the move and even get a compliment from Nadeau, but the speed at which the car loses its traction is unnerving. Imagination is a powerful thing.
We're doing this under controlled conditions but out there, on the road, with your family in the car …
There's a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I need to take every winter driving course I can. Is it really possible that I spend more time on Twitter than I do on my driving? I'm pathetic.
The next series of tests recreate an emergency brake-and-avoid situation. A moose darts on the road and you must brake and turn to avoid it. Human nature is to stare at the object in front of you, which means when you turn, you're likely to turn into, rather than away from, the object. Nadeau reminds me to keep the eyes focused out front and to brake then turn, rather than blending the two. It works.
I feel a little bit like Scrooge but instead of being visited by the "Ghost of Christmas Past" I'm being visited by the "Ghost of Accidents Yet To Come." I want to drop to my knees clutching the Michelin tire gauge I've been given and swear to mend my ways, asking, "Answer me one question. Are these Michelin winter driving tests the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?"
No matter how long you've been driving, no matter how good you think you are, it's never too late to become a better driver. If you can't be there in person you can do this from your computer by visiting michelinwintercenter.com.
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