Leading Winter Driving Expert Advises Drivers on How to Stay Safe this Winter

With another Canadian winter fast approaching, drivers will have to pay close attention to the condition of their winter tires in order to safely cope with the sleet, hail, ice and snow that can make roadways more challenging to navigate.

Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says that installing overly worn winter tires will not only reduce performance, but also cancel the benefits of switching from all-season tires to snow tires.

“Winter tires have come so far performance-wise in the last decade or so that it’s foolish not to switch,” says Cox, one of the world’s leading experts on winter driving. “One of the things that most people don’t realize is that even if you do have winter tires, once they’re half worn they’re giving you the performance of an all-season tire and, taking that a step further, once the all-season tire is half worn, that gives you the performance of a summer tire. And summer tires have no place on winter roads.”

Cox, who recently spoke to Carpages.ca about winter driving, not only touched on winter tires, but also discussed issues such as overcoming common winter driving mistakes, dealing with icy roads, regaining control during skids and avoiding crashes.

Q [Carpages.ca]: What are some common winter driving mistakes?

A [Mark Cox]: One of the biggest mistakes [drivers can make] is overestimating their abilities or the abilities of their cars to maintain traction on the road. You have to remember that it takes from four to 10 times as long to stop on ice and snow as it does on pavement. So that means that you need to make every input that much earlier. The other thing that most people don’t realize is that slippery roads magnify poor driving technique. So even the smallest mistake, which you can get away with on dry pavement with a lot of grip, creates a problem on a more slippery surface where the car starts to slide.

Q: What sorts of poor driving techniques are you referring to?

A: One of the most basic things that you want to do when driving on a low-grip surface is to use all of the traction or grip that you have available for only one thing at a time. And while that sounds really easy to do, it’s hard for most drivers to put it into practice because that means that you only use the brakes when the car is traveling in a straight line. Slow the car down prior to the corner, take your foot off of the brakes completely and then steer through the corner using all the grip available just to steer the car. And only when you’re able to turn the steering wheel back towards straight at the exit of the corner would you then begin to accelerate. Sounds very simple, but it’s very difficult for most drivers to use effectively.  If you’re using good technique, front-wheel drive, rear- wheel drive and all-wheel drive are all really the same. If you’re using bad technique, they can handle very differently. So this is one of the things that most every driver needs to understand and use as effectively as they possibly can.

Q: What advice can you provide as it relates to dealing with icy roads?

A: The main thing is to pay attention and be aware when you’re in a situation where ice may develop. One of the most important things you can do, especially during a long trip or as you’re coming toward evening, is to look at the thermometer in your car. If it’s well above freezing, you’re probably not going to see ice. But as it starts to dip more toward freezing, you have to pay attention not only to that thermometer on your dashboard, but when you’re driving pay attention to where you may be in [terms of] the shade of a mountain where it’s already a little colder or in the shade of a building…If you’re aware, you can identify [a problem] before you become involved in it. [If you are caught by surprise] the main thing…is don’t panic because in almost every case if someone panics they yank the wheel, they jam on the brakes and that just makes the situation much worse. Just because you’re sliding doesn’t mean you’re totally out of control.

Q: Can you provide some tips for regaining control when skidding?

A: The first thing you have to do is determine which wheels are sliding. There are two different kinds of skids. One is where the front wheels lose grip and the car just doesn’t turn — you’ve turned the steering wheel and the car just keeps going straight. The other type of skid is where you’re perhaps going around the corner and the rear wheels lose traction and the car tends to spin. So first you have to determine which end of the car has lost the grip. Very common is to go into a corner too fast, hit an ice patch and the car just won’t turn — it keeps going straight. The first thing to remember here is if you don’t have enough grip for steering you certainly don’t have enough grip for steering and braking. So the brakes aren’t the answer. The proper correction in this case is to go back to the basics. You should be coasting through the turn just steering. So if you are trying to accelerate through the corner, take your foot off of the gas pedal and at the same time decrease your steering a little bit back towards straight, and this allows the wheels to roll more freely and to regain the traction at which point you can steer once again. That particular correction takes a lot of nerves and a lot of room.

If you’re going through the corner and you lose traction or grip on the rear wheels…, look where you want your car to go and point the front wheels there. There are two situations where you can lose grip on the rear wheels — one is just at a slow speed in a parking lot with a rear-wheel drive car, and if you accelerate too hard it spins the rear wheels. In that case, just lift off of the accelerator. That’s just driver error and typically at a slow speed not such a big deal. But where it becomes a big deal is when you’re headed down the highway and maybe you decide a little bit late to take an exit ramp, so you lift off the gas and all of the weight transfer of the car goes to the front wheels — which is [generally] a good thing [because] that gives you good steering. But as you as steer through the corner you’ve also unloaded the rear wheels — that’s why they tend to slide. So as you steer into that skid, you have to gently accelerate, not to add speed to an already bad situation, but…to create a weight transfer back to the rear wheels.

Q: How can collisions be avoided?

A: The main thing there is whenever you see a challenging situation — for example a car coming at you in your lane or perhaps a car that’s about to blow through an intersection — the main thing is to always look for the solution. Don’t focus on the problem. Don’t look at that car because your hands and feet will just intuitively make you go to what you’re looking at. So you always want to look for the way out. You want to look for the gap on either side of the car. In some cases, it might mean driving off the road. But driving off the road and being stuck in a snow bank is a whole lot safer than either hitting or being hit by another car.