I'm an Australian in Canada on a work visa, and going to drive from Vancouver to Jasper, Alta., to go skiing. Although I've never driven on snow or ice before, I'm not worried because we're renting an SUV with all-wheel drive. But everyone here tells me I should be terrified. Should I be? – Henry, Vancouver
Nobody's ever applied the phrase "winter wonderland" to Canada's roads. Instead, from now until spring, we'll all winter worry every time we hit the highway.
But the real culprit isn't just Canada's weather – it's drivers, driving instructor Ian Law said.
"Ice, snow and bad weather do not cause vehicles to crash. Not even the dreaded black ice," said Law, president and chief instructor of ILR Car Control School, in an e-mail. "What causes crashes is what the driver does when they encounter these conditions."
If you're driving on ice and snow, experts say you should have winter tires (not all rental cars have them), make sure they have enough air (cold weather causes the air in tires to contract) and keep plenty of space from the car in front of you.
We asked Law and Michelin Canada driving expert Carl Nadeau to tell us what else you should know to stay safe on Canadian roads this winter.
Don't feel the need for speed
In the winter, you could be driving too fast even if you're going the speed limit.
"Too many motorists feel they must drive that limit because the sign says they should," Law said. "Speed limits are for ideal conditions – dry, good visibility and low traffic volume. They are suggested maximum speeds set by those who design the roads."
You can actually get a ticket for driving at – or even below – the speed limit if snow and ice make roads hazardous. Blizzards and drifting snow can make it tough to see. And going too fast on snow and ice could make you lose control. In B.C., you could face a $167 fine and three demerit points.
"Driving requires you to 100-per-cent focus on what you are doing, especially in winter – grip and visibility is reduced," Michelin's Nadeau said. "The best way to deal with potential danger is to adapt your speed."
AWD doesn't mean Amazing Winter Driving
All-wheel drive is marketed as a safety feature, but it can actually increase the danger on winter roads.
"We are being misled by the auto manufacturers who insist AWD is a safety feature – it does not give your tires more grip," Law said. "All it does is allow a vehicle to accelerate more efficiently on low-friction surfaces."
That keeps you from getting stuck, "but it can mask how slippery the road surface really is, tricking the driver into thinking there is more grip than there really is until they need to stop or steer," Law said. "Everyone needs to slow down – truckers, those with AWD – all drivers."
Watch out for black ice
Black ice isn't actually black – what you're seeing, if you see it at all, is the colour of the asphalt. It's a thin coat of ice that's typically found on bridges, overpasses and shady spots where the pavement is especially cold – and it can be tough to spot.
"Black ice is hard to see, so be careful over bridges and overpasses when the temperature is below zero degrees Celsius," Nadeau said. "By slowing down and looking far ahead, you will notice changes in road condition and the reflection on asphalt."
If you do hit black ice, don't slam on your brakes.
"One of the worst things you can do when hitting black ice is to overreact – just drive straight, avoid sudden moves and slow down gradually," Nadeau said. "Pumping the brakes makes breaking distance longer; trust the ABS system or use threshold braking."
Watch out, period
"The best thing is to not lose control in the first place," Law said. "Knowing what to look for – conditions that can cause ice, white outs, cars in the ditch – is a big part of that. That requires the proper vision technique and focusing on processing driving information, not talking on the phone or to a passenger."
You should be looking farther up the road than you think. And looking ahead isn't enough. You have to be ready to react quickly. That means keeping your hands at 9 and 3 o'clock on the steering wheel and sitting close enough to the pedals that your leg has a slight bend under heavy braking, Nadeau said.
If the car in front of you suddenly stops, focus on where you want your car to go – which is not the ditch.
"Look where you want to go as you will naturally steer towards where you are looking," Nadeau said.
If you suddenly slam on the brakes, or try to turn and brake at the same time, you could spin out of control.
"When the roads are covered in snow, slush and ice, the best way to maintain control of your vehicle is to slow down and apply the brake while moving in a straight line," Nadeau said. "Release the brake before turning and accelerate once you've exited the turn safely."
Check the weather reports
Make sure the road you're planning on taking is safe to drive on.
"Many drivers will drive the same route no matter the conditions because that is the road they always take," Law said. "If they are warning of squalls or bad conditions on a certain route, go another way."
And, if the roads are really bad, consider staying home.
"If you don't need to drive in bad weather, don't," Law said.
And, if you're new to Canadian winter driving, Law recommends taking a winter-driving course.
"[It's] not because I need the business, but because most of these skills need to be learned in a vehicle," Law said. "Then, these skills need to be practised over and over so the repetition becomes muscle memory instead of the action being a thought process. Just saying, 'Do this when you get in a skid,' doesn't work when panic sets in."
Have a driving question? Send it to email@example.com. Canada's a pretty big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.