Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers – Safe Winter Driving
What makes winter driving different?
Think of walking on a carpet with running shoes on. You have lots of grip; you can take big steps, push off, run fast and change direction quickly. Now think of walking on an ice rink with dress shoes on – you must take smaller steps, ensuring balance on feet before taking a step. You can’t push off or run without slipping. That is winter driving! You need to think of driving on snowy/icy roads like walking on an ice rink. The problem we have however is that we don’t do that. With all our modern technology, we don’t give winter conditions enough thought. We have heated seats and steering wheels, automatic climate control, heated mirrors, traction and stability control, all-wheel drive… we’re warm and comfortable – isolated inside the car from the conditions outside. All these technologies that make us so comfortable inside the car make it easy to forget the roads are slippery! The key to low-risk winter driving is to respect the road and weather conditions and understand the dynamics and limitations of tires and vehicles.
Preparation: Car and Driver
Assess your car
- General mechanical condition: Is your car reliable? Car trouble in winter weather can lead to big problems.
- Tires – full winter tires (identified by the mountain and snowflake logo) in good condition perform best in ice and snow. The tread design and rubber compound work together to provide better traction than M+S tires or “all-season” tires. Make sure they’re properly inflated and have plenty of remaining tread depth.
- Lights should all be working. Use full headlights (not just daytime running lights) in poor weather.
- Don’t drive until your windows are clear and you can see where you’re going. The defroster and rear window defogger need to be working. Inside glass fogs up easily in cold, damp weather. If you and your passengers are wearing wet clothing when you get in the car, it will take even longer for the windows to clear. Make sure you turn your air conditioning on if your car has a separate switch for this, even if you need maximum heat! The air conditioner de-humidifies the incoming air and helps keep windows clean. Make sure you know how to set your car’s defroster for maximum effectiveness. Direct the far left and right dashboard air vents towards side glass for even more defrost help. Heated outside mirrors (that turn on automatically with the rear defroster) are a good safety feature to have.
- Wipers fully operational, blades in good condition, lots of windshield washer fluid in the reservoir?
- Clean all the snow off your car before driving. Snow left on the roof can slide forward and cover your windshield under braking, completely blocking your forward vision. Snow on the hood can blow back and impair your vision while you’re driving. And snow can fly off your car and affect the vision of the driver following you. Clean all the snow away from all the lights. Make sure the cooling air intakes in the grille or below the bumper are not blocked by snow which could cause overheating. And don’t forget to clear snow from the air intakes at the base of the windshield where the heating system draws outside air for the defroster.
- Carry food (energy bars, snacks) water and blankets to tide you over if you’re delayed due to road closures or traffic gridlock. You may want to also carry a shovel, warm clothes, head covering and boots, and have a first-aid kit handy. Keep your gas tank at least half full. Carry your cell phone (be aware there may be no signal in some locations) and have a way to charge it.
Assess the conditions
- How severe are the conditions on your planned route? Listen to traffic radio stations, check websites like DriveBC for conditions. How is traffic? – maybe it would be best to delay your drive until backups subside.
- Do you have to drive? Can your trip be postponed?
- Is snow accumulation so great that your car cannot travel through it?
- Anticipate traffic tie-ups and road closures. If you’re travelling on highways between towns in winter, it’s possible that roads could be closed for periods of time due to extreme conditions or vehicle crashes. Even in the city, long delays can occur. Have water and snacks handy just in case.
Assess the driver (that’s you)
- Are you awake, alert and free of any type of impairment?
- Are you overly nervous or uncomfortable about driving in the conditions?
- Have you planned your route?
- Are you running late?
- How is your day going? Is there anything on your mind that is distracting enough to affect your ability to drive?
- Are you alone, or carrying passengers? Will this affect your driving?
OK, my car’s ready – I’m ready. How do I do this?
Adapt your driving to suit the conditions. The conditions are different so you have to drive differently.
Allow more time. Fact: It will take you longer to get where you’re going in winter conditions. Allowing more time will reduce stress and reduce your tendency to speed. Leave earlier.
Slow down. Because traction is greatly reduced, you need to lower your speed significantly. Posted speeds are for “ideal” conditions only! Driving more slowly gives you more time to anticipate, react and stop. Most crashes on slippery roads are caused by driving too fast for conditions.
Leave more following distance. Following too closely is dangerous in good conditions and it’s plain foolish in slippery weather. Leave lots of following distance. Be aware of “escape” routes while driving.
Brake earlier. It takes a lot longer to stop when it’s slippery. Start your braking early, applying pedal pressure sooner, then reducing pressure as you come closer to your stopping point. If you’re engaging ABS, you’re not braking soon enough and likely driving too fast to begin with! Most skids under braking happen towards the end of the braking zone, when drivers realize they are running out of room to stop and apply more brake pedal pressure.
Look farther ahead. The farther ahead you look, the more time you’ll have to react to situations. You will recognize more hazards. You can begin braking earlier and stay in control. Keep your eyes moving, don’t fixate.
Drive smoothly. Pretend there’s a bowl of milk on the seat you don’t want to spill! Slow, steady acceleration, braking and steering will help you maintain traction more than abrupt control inputs that could cause you to skid and potentially lose control. Bonus – you’ll save fuel, too!
Be patient. Avoid sudden lane changes, don’t rush to make turns at intersections. Everything needs to be done at a slower, relaxed pace when driving in winter conditions.
Practice “skid avoidance” vs. relying on “skid control”. Safe winter driving means avoiding situations where you induce a loss of traction and cause a skid. Drive at appropriate speeds and look far ahead while using smooth control inputs – steering, brake and accelerator. If you get caught napping and you begin to skid – look where you want to go and steer in that direction – do NOT look at what you want to avoid! Skid avoidance and early skid detection are your best strategies otherwise you could find yourself in a skid you can’t control.
4-wheel drive vehicles do not have winter super powers. Yes, you can climb hills, sometimes run in deeper snow and so on. You are still bound by the laws of physics however, and those vehicles still require you adapt your driving style to suit the conditions just as you would in a two-wheel drive car.
Scan intersections. This is something you should always be doing, but in slippery conditions the chance a driver could fail to stop at a cross street is much higher. Slow down, look both ways and be prepared to brake and avoid other cars as you approach intersections.
Signal your intentions – not your actions. Make sure other drivers clearly understand what you’re doing in advance with signals, brake lights and other forms of communication – eye contact, hand gestures, etc.
Experiment. When you’re just starting out in winder conditions and when you’re sure it’s safe, find out how slippery the road is by trying your brakes, steering and accelerator to see how the car reacts to your control inputs. It will help you gauge how much (or how little) traction you have to work with.
Take a break if you feel drowsy or have been on the road for extended periods. Most of us are not as used to driving in winter conditions and the heightened level of concentration and alertness required can tire a driver out more quickly than normal.
Types of skids
The key to skid recovery (like most things in driving) is proper vision. All you need to remember is “look and steer in the direction you want to go”. Forget about trying to remember what “steer into the skid” or opposite lock, or counter steer etc. really means. Look where you want to go (not at what you’re trying to avoid!) and steer in that direction.
“Understeer” describes a front wheel skid. It’s where the nose of the car follows a wider path than normal for a given amount of steering input – the car “under-steers”. Understeer is caused by having too much speed when turning a corner. It’s the most commonly experienced type of skid, and fortunately, the easiest one to fix. Your natural tendency when the car begins to skid is to lift your foot off the accelerator, which is great because this is exactly what the car needs. Lifting off causes weight to be transferred forwards and onto the front tires, giving you better traction. As the weight transfers and the speed begins to drop, the car will re-gain front tire traction and recover the steering path. If the front of the car starts to slide, don’t keep turning the wheel in an attempt to correct the skid. If the car starts to skid, it’s telling you the tires are past their traction limit. Turning the wheel more demands even more out of the tires and it will take longer for you to recover traction and control.
“Oversteer” describes a rear wheel skid. It’s where the rear of the car over-rotates and comes around like “fishtailing”. Oversteer is also caused by having too much speed in a corner, but in this case popping your foot off the accelerator can make matters worse because that transfers weight towards the front, at the same time taking weight off the rear tires and making the skid worse. Accelerating would transfer more weight to the rear, but you likely got into this situation by going too fast, so more speed isn’t the safest solution. The best thing to do is maintain the same amount of throttle and look and steer where you want to go.
Practice skid control
Imagine seeing a scary movie for the first time. Suddenly, something frightening happens on the screen! You jump out of your seat because you’re caught by surprise. But if you saw the same movie again you would be less scared, and after a couple of times, it’s no longer scary at all, it might even become fun. Practicing skid control works the same way. If you practice, you’ll lose your fear and maybe even begin to enjoy developing a new car control skill. Hopefully, at some point conditions will be right and you can find that wonderful deserted, snow-covered parking lot to practice getting in to and recovering from understeer and oversteer skids.
All-wheel drive and 4 wheel drive
Regardless of the type of drive system your car has – front-wheel, rear-wheel, all–wheel or four-wheel, the physics are the same. Weight transfers the same way. When you transfer weight towards the front by braking or lifting off the accelerator, you transfer weight away from the rear and vice-versa. Centrifugal force doesn’t change. Braking effectiveness still depends on the amount available grip at each tire. So each vehicle requires the same type of correction to control skidding regardless of the drive system.
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