By Wyatt Knox
Winter driving presents a unique set of challenges, but it also gives drivers opportunities to discover areas where they need improvement. We often hear students here at the driving school make comments like “I’m a great driver in the summer, but I have a lot of problems in the winter.” That should be a huge red flag for any driver; it means that your skills are not really up to par and that you are getting away with a lot of bad habits that will bite you sooner or later… especially when data suggests that most fatal crashes occur in the summer time. There’s no such thing as an “accident” in the driving world, just poor planning and/or execution. Blaming other drivers, your vehicle, animals, bad conditions, or other variables for your troubles will only create a roadblock to learning. With that in mind, let’s look at a few things that’ll help you get through the winter season (and the rest of your driving life) in one piece.
1. Look where you want to go.
It’s one of the hardest things to do in an emergency situation, and just as important to keep in mind when things are going well. Especially in the winter, constantly evaluating road conditions, choosing the best driving line, and having a backup plan are the most important skills to have as a driver. You can have the car control skills of a Formula 1 Champion, but if you fixate on every obstacle that appears, or stare at the trees when you start to skid, it’s going to end badly. Looking down the road at where you’d like to end up is the first step to recovering any bad situation.
2. Use the controls smoothly.
On ice and snow, you may have only 10% of the grip that you’d have on dry tarmac. Sometimes closer to 30% or even 50% depending on the temperature and consistency of the surface as well as your tires. It’s your job to decide how much grip you have available and work within those parameters. The key is knowing that if you have less than 40% grip, you can only accelerate, brake, or steer at less than 40% of your car’s normal capability without inducing a skid or activating your car’s safety systems (ABS, Trac, DSC, etc.).
3. One maneuver at a time.
When you’re dealing with snow, ice, and other slippery surfaces, its important to use what little grip you have for what you need most at the time. You can accelerate, steer, or brake, but just don’t expect to do more than one at a time without getting into trouble. If you’re braking at or around the limit of the surface, you may need to release the brakes somewhat as you add steering. The same is true of acceleration, if you’re on the gas and trying to turn simultaneously, the car may not turn effectively until you release the throttle somewhat.
4. Safety Systems aren’t always your best friend.
Modern vehicles are equipped with advanced safety systems that will work to get you out of trouble when you exceed the limits of grip. Your ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) will keep the wheels from locking while the car is still moving, but will allow simultaneous braking and turning. Traction control will stop the tires from spinning or turning faster than the actual road speed of your vehicle. DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) works to keep the car from understeering or oversteering. Find a safe place to feel these systems working, and see for yourself whether they’re helping or actually hurting your driving… In situations like deep mud and snow, you might find that with ABS you have to double or triple your braking distances, and that you may have to turn off the traction control to make forward progress. These systems function much better with proper tires for the surface you’re travelling on, with fresh winter tires on the snow, they are all fairly capable.
5. Be prepared.
Set yourself up for success whenever possible. Mounting winter tires (on all four wheels), installing winter wiper blades, keeping your washer fluid full, carrying a towstrap and shovel as well as an emergency kit, having sand or kitty litter on hand, cleaning your lights and windows, checking your anti-freeze, warming your vehicle up properly, owning an ice scraper/brush, carrying tire chains when applicable, clearing ice from your wheel wells, blocking off your radiator in extreme cold temps… Any one of these things may make the difference between a successful journey and spending the night on the side of the road.
6. Have fun with it.
If you drive fairly smoothly, pay attention to the conditions and adjust your speed and line accordingly, learn the strengths and weaknesses of your vehicle, and keep your eyes on the road, you shouldn’t need fantastic skid control skills. That said, part of learning your limits, the vehicle’s limits, and the road’s limits involves going beyond each of them to find exactly where the line is. Always try to be safe and constructive about practicing and playing around. Whether you’re in an abandoned parking lot, on a frozen lake, or just out at night trying to beat the plow trucks to fresh tracks, try to have a goal or at least a way to gauge your progress. Or just make a trip up to Team O’Neil and we’ll have you squared away in no time.
Wyatt Knox is from The Team O’Neil Rally School, which has been in operation for almost twenty years in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The school leads courses year round, ranging from basic winter driving schools to multi-day racing classes and off-road courses. With alumni like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, and many other Champions from a variety of racing disciplines, Team O’Neil has garnered an international reputation for driver training.