Plan for winter driving - You can be the safest winter driver on the road, but you’re only as good as the tools at your disposal. Having dedicated winter tires with a good amount of tread is crucial for winter driving. The tires serve as your point of contact with the road surface so you want to make sure that they are the best they can be. Additionally, you want to ensure that the other parts of your car are prepared for winter conditions. Make sure you have good wiper blades, you’re not running low on windshield washer fluid and that all the fluids in your car are rated for cold temperatures. Another good practice is make sure you have a pair of gloves, a hat, a coat, a small shovel, jumper cables and a tow strap in your car in case you slide off the road and or find yourself in a bad situation. When possible, it is also a good habit to have at least a half tank of gas at all times during the winter months.
Test the conditions…and your car – Before you are faced with a real-world driving challenge, find a safe, open space and experiment with how your car responds to your inputs. Try firmly applying the brakes or use a lot of steering or applying a lot of throttle. Doing this early in the winter will allow you to know how your car reacts in these conditions, its limits, and how to safely compensate for it. Making it a point to do this throughout the winter during different storms to give you a better idea of the current conditions and how much steering and braking input you can effectively utilize. This will also allow you to know how much to compensate for the conditions.
Look where you want to go – This simple rule sounds obvious, but it is one of the best things you can do behind the wheel. When confronted with an unexpected slide, drivers often will fixate on an object on the side of the road which often results in the car hitting said object. The car goes where your eyes are focused so looking further up the road and dedicating your focus solely to the task of driving is hugely important. This will also give you quicker reaction times and make you more aware of what is coming up as your drive.
Prioritize your maneuvers – With limited grip available, if you are using a fair amount of one input (steering, braking, accelerating) you must wait to strongly apply another. For example when braking hard, if you turn the steering wheel sharply, odds are you will continue straight. Wait until you are releasing the brake then steadily apply the steering. Because the tire only has a limited amount of grip, it can’t always handle the forces of heavy braking and turning at the same time. Sperateting yout inputs and being smooth will allow to not overwhelm the tire and maintain traction.
Be aware safety systems can be counter-productive – Systems such as ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) are in place to keep your wheels from locking up under heavy braking. When surfaces are slick enough from snow and ice this may result in you requiring several times the distance to come to a stop. Traction control is meant to eliminate the tires spinning faster than the distance of road traveled. Sometimes in winter, wheel spin is beneficial in cutting through the top layer of snow/ice and finding grip below it. Be prepared to have trouble accelerating in certain slippery scenarios. Know these systems and what their positive and negative impacts are.
If you would like to learn more in a firsthand environment, The Team O’Neil Rally School offers a series of one-day Winter Driving Courses that give students the skills and instincts to safely navigate slippery roads. Students learn car control on actual snow-covered surfaces, in their own cars, in a safe and controlled environment. The courses are well-suited to younger drivers or those with limited experience in varied conditions.