Winter driving tips from a pro
"You can be in control" - Driving in winter strikes fear in the minds of most Canadians, yet it’s something we all must face for several months every year. Drivers admit they’re concerned most by situations over which they feel they have no control – trying to stop on icy roads, concerns over what other drivers may (or may not) do around them, fearful their vehicle may go into a skid, the overall unpredictability of driving in wintry conditions. Forget the fear, says veteran driving instructor Danny Kok, “you can be in control.”
Kok, a former racer who has been conducting driver training sessions for more than 30 years, is the chief instructor for the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy. One of the academy’s programs is a winter driving school held in several cities across the country. (Check out the website www.mbdrivingacademy.ca for more information.) Kok shares some of his expertise on how to overcome fears of winter driving and be more confident behind the wheel.
Skids - Uncontrolled skids can no doubt spike your heartbeat, but the fear factor can be eased if you understand what’s happening and how to react. First, be aware how a vehicle transfers weight from front to rear and side to side. When a vehicle is accelerating, the weight transfer is rearward; under braking, it shifts forward. If the front wheels of your vehicle start to slide during cornering, it means the front tires have lost their grip. Resolving the situation is easy – simply ease off the accelerator pedal. This transfers weight to the front wheels, helping the tires regain traction. If the rear wheels start to slide, the reaction is opposite – maintain throttle position to shift weight to the back, then look and steer where you want to go.
These reactions are especially important in today’s vehicles which are equipped with some form of electronic anti-skid or stability control system. These systems typically use sensors to determine the steering angle of the front wheels. The computer assumes the front wheels are pointed in the direction you want to go and it makes adjustments to help the vehicle get there – cutting engine power and/or applying the brakes on individual wheels to help the vehicle rotate, much like you’d maneuver a wheelchair. It’s worth noting the dynamics of vehicle control (recovering from skids) is the same, whether your vehicle is front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The key difference is the application of the power, but the dynamics remain the same.
Winter tires - The No. 1 factor in making winter driving safer is ensuring your vehicle is fitted with winter tires. Tires designed for winter use – and appropriately marked with the tire industry’s “snowflake and mountain” logo – deliver far superior traction and control, compared to the all-season tires typically fitted on vehicles by the manufacturer. The rubber in all-season tires hardens at around 7o Celsius, losing the ability to grip, while winter tires are designed to maintain their adhesion capabilities to minus-30 o C or more. The all-seasons become hard like a hockey puck while the winter tires continue to stick to the road surface, whether it’s clear or covered in snow and/or ice.
Recent tests in snowy/icy conditions by Kok and his team put the difference in perspective: Braking to a stop from 40 km/h with winter tires on the test vehicle was accomplished in 15.8 metres (about three car lengths), while the all-season tires required 22 metres – more than a full car-length further. The car was still travelling at 20 km/h when it passed the point where it stopped on winter tires. (The same vehicle shod with summer-only tires required 33 metres to stop – more than twice as far as on winter tires!) Acceleration tests showed similar disparities, with winter-rated tires having the definite advantage.
Concerns over the cost of buying a set of tires for winter use are mitigated by the fact a vehicle will require a second set of tires during the typical 100,000-kilometre ownership period, but by splitting the usage time between summer and winter, both sets should last throughout that timeframe. In other words, you’re likely going to have to buy a set of tires sometime while you own the car, so why not make the “second” set winter tires and help ensure your safety when road conditions get dicey.
Clear snow - It never ceases to amaze how many drivers hit the road after a snowfall and fail to clear the accumulated snow off their vehicle. A quick pass by the windshield wipers and a sweep by the rear-window wiper if so equipped doesn’t cut it – you need to brush clear the entire windshield, side windows and rear window to ensure you can see in all directions when seated behind the steering wheel.
Don’t overlook brushing snow away from the air intake vents below the windshield – this ensures air can be drawn into the car’s ventilation system, helping minimize the possibility of the interior glass fogging up.
Also, be sure to brush the snow off the hood to avoid the accumulation from blowing onto the windshield as you drive. Likewise, clearing the snow off the roof and trunk will ensure you’ll have rear visibility – and not cause a whiteout for the driver behind you. Finally, clear snow from the headlights and taillights so you can see and, equally important, be seen.
Lights on - The government-mandated addition of daytime running lights has increased safety on the roads because the lights help make vehicles more visible. However, this feature has created a new problem, also affecting visibility. Many drivers fail to recognize that although the front lights are illuminated, the tail lights aren’t on. So when weather conditions, such as fog, rain or snow, cause visibility to deteriorate, there’s no issue with oncoming vehicles seeing you because the daytime running lights are on, but pity the drivers behind you – your vehicle may just be a ghost image, or none at all, to trailing vehicles.
Ideally, government regulators will respond by pairing the taillights with the front lights so your vehicle is visible regardless. In the meantime, always turn your lights – front, side and rear – on manually when conditions warrant. Even if your vehicle is fitted with an automatic headlight feature, take control and light up manually when visibility drops.
Light touch - When dealing with slippery road conditions, it’s important to employ a light touch on the controls, especially when trying to cope with a crisis such as a skidding or sliding vehicle. While instincts may urge more drastic reactions, Kok says it’s critical to resist those tendencies and use slow, gentle inputs to the steering and braking. Being heavy-handed only worsens the loss of traction that caused the skid.
However, if the situation requires heavy deceleration – a panic stop – then firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal is on order. Doing so engages the vehicle’s ABS system, which will bring the vehicle to a stop while still allowing you to steer around the problem, rather than slide into it.
Please be seated - Before you start a drive, ensure you have positioned yourself properly in the seat. Remember, the location of the seat that worked during summer months when you were wearing a light shirt or blouse won’t be appropriate when you settle behind the wheel all bundled up with bulky sweaters and coats. Position the seat at its lowest point because this forces you to look farther down the road – you already know where the front of your vehicle is located; you need to see what’s going on farther ahead. Before starting the vehicle, position the seat so your right foot can comfortably push the accelerator pedal to the floor while still allowing a slight bend in your knee. Place your left foot on the dead pedal – this helps you keep your upper body in a balanced position during cornering and braking.
The rake of the seatback is critical – if you do become involved in a crash a more upright position helps transfer energy from the impact to soft tissue areas, rather than causing spinal injuries that may have devastating effects. You should be able to comfortably grasp the steering wheel without lifting your shoulders from the seatback. And don’t assume the straight-arm approach some drivers think is cool – allow for a slight bend at the elbows and position the seatback (and steering wheel adjustment, if the car is so equipped) accordingly.
Your hands should be positioned at nine o’clock and three o’clock on the steering wheel, shoulder width apart. This positioning allows you greater manoeuvrability when steering, especially when trying to counter a skid or undertaking an avoidance move. Use a light grip on the steering wheel – you don’t need a gorilla death grip. Kok notes the steering wheel “is a control, not a handle.”
Other tips from Kok - Tune in to your surroundings: Be aware of what’s happening around your vehicle at all times, because more awareness makes you a better driver. By paying more attention to what’s going on around you on the road, you will recognize the shortcomings of other drivers and give them space so you don’t get swept up in their mistakes. When weather conditions deteriorate and you must still drive, be sure to allow extra time to reach your destination safely. Trying to make time in bad weather is a disaster waiting to happen. Slow down, take your time and be alert.
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