Expert winter driving tips

Beyond all the common-sense preparations, such as proper winter tires, winterizing a vehicle, emergency kits and the like, there are behaviours that all professional drivers adopt once winter is upon us.

Professionals know the braking and steering function of their vehicles. They use their gears to such an extent that braking is often optional.

Here are some tips that will help everyone drive like a pro:

Practise braking and steering at the same time, if your car is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS).

The vast majority of everyday drivers have never tested the ABS. They are startled by the clicking or humming sound of the ABS working properly. They automatically take their foot off the brake as an instant reaction to an unfamiliar sound. The best thing a driver can do is take a new car to a parking lot to see how it performs on ice and snow.

All drivers with ABS should practise braking firmly while steering at the same time. Anyone over 35 years of age was probably taught to pump the brakes in an emergency situation on a slippery surface. Braking in such a pumping fashion will only diminish the effectiveness of an ABS-equipped vehicle.

If the vehicle is not equipped with ABS, it is best to use the threshold-braking technique. Gently depress the brake until the tires of the vehicle are about to skid, then release the brake and repeat the process. This slow pumping action is the best way to gain maximum traction when braking on snowy or slushy surfaces.

If a driver is unable to stop and must steer around an obstacle, it is best to use the brake-release-steer method to avoid a collision. Never steer and brake heavily at the same time. The wheels of the vehicle will most certainly turn, but the vehicle direction will not, and a collision with the very obstacle the driver is trying to avoid is more than likely.

Front- and rear-drive vehicles behave in different ways when roads are slippery. When the rear wheels lose traction in a rear-wheel drive vehicle, the best thing to do is take your foot off the brake and reduce speed. This will stabilize the vehicle and allow time to regain control.

A front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicle will react in a similar fashion when there is a loss of traction. It is important to ease the foot off the brake and gently apply the gas to stabilize the vehicle and allow it to pull itself out of a skid. Drivers should practise this manoeuvre in the same way that professionals are required to maintain their skill levels, under controlled conditions.

Deserted parking lots are the best place to get the much-needed skid experience. (Most highly recommended driving schools offer these types of skid practice sessions.)

Whenever a skid is experienced, it is important to steer in the same direction as the rear of the vehicle. The best way to teach this technique is to have the driver involved in the skid school turn the opposite direction that the hood is moving. This eliminates the delayed reaction of thinking about the rear end of the vehicle, and reduces the skid reaction to a one step solution (instead of having to think about the rear of the car and then react). Steering opposite to the hood is a new way to teach skid solutions and it works. Always look where you want to the vehicle to go.

Practise skidding — it is a great confidence-builder and can be a lot of fun while learning.

Steve Wallace is a longtime teacher and owner of the Wallace Driving School in Victoria.

Photo © Iwona Grodzka