Winter weather produces the most dangerous road conditions most drivers are likely to face. With over 70% of Americans living where they’ll experience snow and ice this winter, If this season is anything like recent years, you can expect half a million car crashes on snowy or icy roads this year, add in wet roads and rainy weather and you’re over 1m more.
So whether you’re new to winter driving or a seasoned veteran looking for a few extra tricks, let’s take a look at what YOU can do to not only survive but to thrive in difficult winter driving conditions.
If you’re looking for the 60 second takeaway: You’re driving a car down the road. There’s YOUR limits, the VEHICLE’s limits, and the ROAD’s limits. If you exceed one of those three limits, you’re going to lose control and probably crash.
Not “have an accident,” you hear people using this phrase “car accident.” There’s no such thing as a car accident, cars don’t have accidents. They’re car crashes, there were nearly six million of them in the US last year, and they happen when drivers exceed their limits, the car’s limits, and/or the road’s limits.
So let’s take a look at how we can be aware of those limits and drive within them, but also ways we can expand each of those limits so we get a little better every year; we can work with friends and family, get everybody dialed in, and set ourselves up for success when it really matters.
Let’s start with your limits behind the wheel. The #1 thing you can do is just pay attention, and when you think you’re paying attention, pay closer attention. Acquire good seat position and hand position, get your eyes way up down the road. Watch for outside temperature changes, know the forecast, know where the weather is coming from, know which direction you’re headed, learn about the different textures of snow and ice at various temperatures.
You can crack the windows and hear what the tires are doing on the road, whether they’re splashing or crunching or squeaking on the snow. That’s the easiest indicator of black ice, the road looks wet, but your tires stop making that sizzling tires-on-wet-road sizzle sound. Test the brakes every so often in a safe place and just see how much grip you’re working with, whether the tires lock up or the ABS activates easily or not.
This is why people fall in love with winter driving, it’s an escape of sorts because if you’re doing it right, you’re not thinking about anything else. Driving in an ice storm is a lot like racing a rally, the car could slide at any moment and you’re balancing speed and distance, finessing the brakes and steering and throttle. It’s the same reason people go skiing or mountain biking or anything. Your brain has to be 100% in the game or you’ll eventually wreck, there’s a meditative zen thing that people start to really enjoy when they get the hang of it.
We’ll look in a second at the car’s limits and the road’s limits, but as far as your limits, the only way to really learn what they are or have any chance of improving them is to practice. Up here in the north, people grow up sliding around ski area parking lots after hours, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself (beside seeking out an advanced driving school like Team O’Neil). The benefit of a school like Team O’Neil is that we’ll give you a structured set of goals and exercises, paired with personal, real time feedback… But you can do a lot on your own regardless of whether you’ve been here or anywhere else, and you need to. Driving is a perishable skill, the best drivers are the best not because of some myth of talent but because they put the hours in. It’s like a language, an instrument, or a profession; the best are always practicing, learning, and improving.
Especially if you have to drive different cars with different equipment, you need to know the line between where it’s gripping the road and when it lets go, feel the shades of grey where it’s sliding but you’re still in control, then when it’s finally gone and unrecoverable.
As far as the vehicle’s limits… there are many variables but #1 will always be tires, and by a big margin. Don’t think of it as mounting tires on your car, think of it as mounting a car on your tires, they’re that important. A $500 2 wheel drive car with new studded winter tires will embarrass a brand new AWD car or SUV on all season tires every single day.
Don’t take that the wrong way, put winter tires on that AWD or 4wd and you’re at the top of the pyramid, you’ll outperform anything, but if it’s either AWD or winter tires, the tires will always win.
This isn’t just for snow and ice, even on dry cold pavement winter tires have a massive advantage because of the soft rubber compounds… An all-season tire in cold temperatures gets hard like a plastic and if you imagine having hard plastic shoe soles walking around VS softer rubber, you’ll immediately get the point. We’ve got videos on our YouTube channel about winter tires, the soft rubber compounds, tread patterns and sipes and all the things that makes winter tires do what they do.
And everything else is secondary. Yes you should install winter wiper blades and washer fluid, carry a shovel and a towstrap, clean your car and your windows all off every time you drive… But tires. Get the best winter tires you can. If you have only two take-aways from this: Practice driving, and get good winter tires.
And finally the road’s limits: If you’ve got good skills and focus, you’re driving a decently equipped car, the road is going to be the determining factor of how well you’re going to get around in the winter.
You can put the best driver in the world out on an icy mountain pass, and they’re just going to go very slowly where they need to. They’re going to make sure their tires are on the best, grippiest part of the road. They’re going to descend hills slowly in lower gears and build momentum before climbing up hills. Whatever the road is doing up ahead, it’s our job to adjust to it, to change our plan constantly as we’re confronted with new and ever more important facts.
Everyone does OK in most situations, when people often crash is when they go quickly from LOTS of grip, to VERY slippery all of a sudden. This is why the first few storms of the year are the most dangerous, people haven’t got their “winter driving” reflexes up to standard yet. If it’s the first snow of the year, go easy and just feel it out, and definitely look out for the other drivers on the road.
You’ll also see this situation around dusk, as the sun sets, a wet road can turn into black ice very quickly. The same is true in hilly or mountainous terrain, the southern face of a hill will be in the sun and the north side will be in the shade and always at least a few degrees colder. The same is true anywhere trees or buildings cast shadows on the road, and when bridges freeze before the rest of the road surface. If you’re heading north or up in elevation the temps can drop faster than many people suspect. At night, it’s common that the cold will sink down low in hollows and valleys where the road will freeze faster than the surrounding hills and fields. Being prepared for the road to suddenly become more slippery and knowing what to look for are critical skills.
Hopefully you’ve found this useful, and if you know anyone who would benefit from some winter driving tips, please don’t hesitate to share this with them. If you’re interested in getting really good at driving very quickly, check out teamoneil.com, you can come visit us and take skid control classes all year round at our school in NH. Until then: be safe, have fun, and we’ll see you next time.