When talking about winter driving, there's something everybody overlooks because no one ever reads their car's owner's manual. One thing you must never do in winter is to use your cruise control. – Denis
Why do car manuals say to avoid using cruise control on slippery roads? Because it could send you on a winter cruise – straight into the ditch, driving experts say.
"Any time of the year, you should never use cruise control unless you can drive at a steady speed," said Ron Wilson, manager, driver education with the Alberta Motor Association. "So not in heavy traffic or if you're driving on winding roads. And you never want to use it on wet or icy roads."
Cruise control helps avoid lead foot – and speeding tickets – on long, fairly straight stretches of road.
But if your wheels lose traction on icy or wet roads and start to spin, the cruise control could keep you accelerating. And while you're sitting back with your foot off the pedal, you won't feel it.
"The car can actually surge forward and put the vehicle into a skid," Wilson said. "So by the time you catch that, it could be too late."
But if your foot's on the pedal, you can feel the wheels slip and the skid begin – and react to it.
"If you wait to see it, it's too late," Wilson said. "When you feel it, you should come off the accelerator, don't hit the brake and look where you want to go."
That's the best advice for any skid, Wilson said, whether you have front-wheel, rear-wheel or all-wheel drive.
"The skid will be different, but what happens to get out of it stays the same," he said.
If you have time, you can also slip the gear into neutral – or if it's a standard, you put in the clutch – to cut power to the wheels.
"A mistake a lot of people make is they downshift, which changes the traction on the wheels and makes the skid worse," Wilson said.
Winter needs your attention, even with tech
Even adaptive cruise control – which keeps your car a steady distance from the car in front – comes with a weather warning.
For Instance, Subaru's 2018 EyeSight manual says to avoid cruise control on "frozen roads, snow-covered roads or other slippery road surfaces because the tires may spin, causing loss of control of the vehicle."
Plus, snow, ice and road salt can interfere with cameras and sensors.
But whether cars have adaptive or conventional cruise control, newer vehicles with electronic stability control will disengage the cruise if the wheels slip or if the car goes into a spin, said Calvin Feist, automotive instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).
"Both of those situations will be corrected way faster by the vehicle's electronics than any human can react," Feist said. "That warning notice would be the manufacturers covering their backsides."
But even with the electronics sensing skids, there's still plenty on the road you should be watching for, and when you're in cruise control, you might be not be up for the job.
"People who are on cruise control are less attentive while driving," Wallace said. "They're reacting to things instead of preparing for things."
Instead, you should be preventing accidents by slowing down, keeping extra distance from other cars and looking ahead (a block ahead in the city and double that on the highway) to spot hazards.
Add to that the standard winter driving advice, like using winter tires, keeping headlights on so you're visible in both directions (tail lights don't come on with daytime running lights) and carrying emergency supplies including water, a blanket and a folding shovel.
And, like we've said before, these tips apply even if you have four-wheel or all-wheel drive.
"AWD drivers have a tendency to overdrive their vehicles because they think they can go anywhere," Wallace said. "And they don't stop any quicker."
Have a driving question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.