Friday, January 24, 2014

Driving 101: Winter Driving Tips

With all of the crazy winter weather we have been getting in much of the US lately, I felt it would be appropriate to start our Driving 101 series with some winter driving tips. Growing up in Southern California, the closest we came to winter weather was a little bit of hail on the rare occasion. However, in college, I had my first experience with true winter weather when, during a particular cold snap, I experienced a run-in with the side of a mountain after hitting a patch of black ice high up in the mountains. Following that experience, I made it a point of learning how to handle myself in even the worst conditions and was ultimately able to get to a point where I felt like I could tackle most any winter driving condition.

What follows are some of the lessons that I learned and are focused on not only keeping you and your passengers safe, but also making sure that the road conditions are safe for everyone else using the roads.

Know your limits

This one seems like a pretty common sense tip, but is probably the one that is least heeded. Know how comfortable you are in winter weather conditions and if you are uncomfortable with the idea of driving in snowy or icy conditions, make alternate arrangements to take public transit or, better yet, be prepared to stay in and not travel at all. If the conditions are within your range of comfort, still be prepared for things to change in an instant and to pull off the road and seek shelter if conditions become too severe. Never push yourself beyond your limits because that is when mistakes are most likely to happen and people are most likely to get injured.

Traction is the name of the game

In wet, snowy, or icy conditions, your greatest limitation is available traction. It is important to understand that the goal is to maintain as much traction as possible and to avoid doing things that will cause the car to lose traction and cause a slide, spin, or other form of loss of control. This means knowing that if your car is fitted with all-season tires, as most cars are these days, that a little bit of light snow is manageable, but the presence of event the slightest bit of ice is going to pose a problem. Summer tires will be worse, hardening into hockey pucks and providing almost no traction at anything below 40 degrees, and dedicated winter tires will offer a greater range of usability in cold conditions. If you live somewhere that frequently experiences extremely harsh winter conditions, investing in a set of winter tires is a good idea since they will provide the best traction in the cold. Combine that with an understanding of how the traction control on your vehicle works to limit wheel spin and you should be able to safely make it through many kinds of low traction conditions.

Speed can be both an asset and a liability

When the traction is limited in snow or ice, carrying too much speed is dangerous as it has a tendency to amplify any mistakes that get made. However, when traction is limited, it is also more difficult to build up speed in the first place, making whatever speed you have a precious commodity since coming to a complete stop might mean becoming completely stuck. The trick is learning to balance carrying enough momentum to keep from getting stuck on even the slightest of inclines, but also not allowing yourself to build up so much speed that you lose control.

Smooth and steady win the race

When traction is lower, it pays to keep your inputs smooth and steady, never making sudden applications of steering, braking, or throttle. Sudden motions tend to upset the balance of the car and, given that traction is already limited, can lead to unpredictable outcomes and a loss of control. If you are smooth with your motions, you will be able to avoid getting into dangerous situations in the first place. For example, in accelerating, be gentle with your throttle application and bring the car up to speed slowly to avoid spinning the tires, which can lead to a loss of traction and a lack of forward progress. When applying the brakes, smoothly apply pressure and steadily increase it until the desired level of braking is achieved. Avoid suddenly stomping on your brakes, which can cause the weight of the car to shift forward and off the rear wheels, causing them to lose traction.

Plan ahead

Never driven in snow and uncertain how it will all feel? Find an open parking lot that does not have any obstructions after a fresh snow and take some time to understand how the tires react to inputs, how much power the traction control will take away, and what the start of a slide or loss of traction feels like. Using this knowledge to prepare yourself to drive in bad conditions will help make you feel more comfortable to handle what you may encounter.

Just remember, at the end of the day, the goal is to try to make it home without incident. If that means avoiding having to drive in the storm, try to adjust your schedule to allow you to do just that. However, if you are forced to drive in less than ideal conditions, then make sure that you allow yourself plenty of time, let people know that you may be later than expected, and think through a route that minimizes putting yourself in dangerous or unwinnable situations, like that steep hill that everyone is going to be stuck on. Taking a moment to plan ahead will likely save you from getting trapped in the storm on the side of the road or perhaps sitting in traffic that turns what is normally an hours commute into an overnight hell on the highway.

Stay warm and drive safe, everyone.

Tags: automotive, driving, driver education, travel, winter