How to drive when the snow falls

This summer was one for the record books, but now winter is peering around the corner. Rain storms have started and it won’t be long before the temperatures start to dip and the roads turn icy.

Some parts of Canada have already experienced the cold. In Vancouver, like many other cities across the country, it seems every year after the first snowfall our driving habits change. For some drivers, the adjustment is second nature, but for others it’s as though the sky is falling with those white flakes.

Driving in the winter season generally presents more problems than driving in any other season. The vehicle and the driver must be prepared as well as possible to cope with these kinds of driving conditions.

In winter driving, braking and stopping the vehicle are the most difficult moments. The tires play a critical role in stopping the vehicle, and they need even more care and attention than in the other seasons.

Most SUV tires have a passenger-car tire classification with M+S stamped on the sidewall, for Mud and Snow. These are considered all-season tires. If this stamp is not there, your vehicle must be fitted with tires suitable for any type of climate, even the most severe ones.

In winter, the pressure of the tire must also be controlled more frequently. This is because a reduction of the outside temperature causes a contraction of the air inside the tire, accelerating the normal and gradual pressure loss process by a value around one to two PSI for each 5 C decrease in temperature.

Contrary to popular opinion, a lower inflation pressure than the normal one does not improve the traction of tires on snow. It makes them much more liable to damage. Always remember that in any season and with any temperature, insufficient pressure is always the main cause of tire damage.

Here are my other key winter driving tips:

– Always use your brakes carefully. Brake early. Brake correctly. It takes more time and distance to stop in icy conditions.

– Do not use the cruise control in winter conditions. Even roads that appear clear can have sudden slippery spots and the short touch of your brakes to deactivate the cruise-control feature can cause you to lose control of your vehicle.

– Don’t get overconfident in your 4×4 vehicle. Remember that four-wheel drive may help you get going quicker than other vehicles but it won’t help you stop any faster. Many 4x4s are heavier than standard passenger vehicles and actually may take longer to stop.

– Don’t get overconfident in your 4×4 vehicle’s traction. Your 4×4 can lose traction as quickly as a two-wheel-drive vehicle.

– Do not pump anti-lock brakes. Step on the brake pedal and, if you start to slide, steer into the direction of the slide.

– Look farther ahead in traffic than you normally do. Actions by cars and trucks will alert you quicker to potential problems and give you a second of extra time to react safely.

– Finally: Go slow!

Here are some other tips from Car Care Canada on getting your car ready for the cold.

• Clean, flush and put new antifreeze in the cooling system. Engine coolant (which either cools or warms your engine, depending on the season) should be flushed and refilled every two years in most vehicles. In most parts of Canada, coolant should be mixed 50:50 with water to keep the coolant from freezing, lubricate the water pump, and ward off cooling-system corrosion. (Don’t make the mistake of adding 100 per cent antifreeze, as full-strength antifreeze actually has a lower freeze point than when mixed with water.)

• Check heaters, defrosters and wipers to ensure they are working properly. Wiper blades that are cracked or torn, or that chatter, streak and don’t properly clean your windshield should be replaced. Some manufacturers offer special winter blades that have a rubber boot covering the arm assembly to keep snow and ice out. When changing the blades, have the windshield wiper system nozzles cleaned and adjusted if necessary, and check the windshield washer reservoir in case it needs fluid.

• Check the battery and charging system for optimum performance. Cold weather is hard on batteries and unfortunately, batteries don’t always give warning signs before they fail. If your vehicle’s battery is more than three years old, it’s wise to have it replaced. When choosing a replacement, make sure the new one has adequate capacity for your exact make and model.

• Check your tire treads and pressure. Tire tread condition is crucial when driving on ice and snow. Also check inflation. Buy snow tires if snow and ice are a problem in your area. Finally, check the tire pressure of the spare tire.

• Change your oil. Check the owner’s manual to see if you are considered “severe” and if so, have the oil changed accordingly, usually every 5,000-8,000 kilometres. Also, consider changing to “winter weight” oil if you live in a cold climate. Note, most Canadians qualify for severe conditions, which means you drive in stop and go traffic, in mountainous terrain, or other conditions that increase wear and tear on your vehicle.

• Have your automotive service technician check the fuel, air and transmission filters at the same time. Always consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual.

• Keep you gas tank at least half full. This tip limits condensation in your tank and reduces gas-line freezing. Adding a little gas-line antifreeze every second fill-up will also help prevent gas-line freezing.

• If you’re due for a tune-up, have it done before winter sets in. Winter magnifies existing problems such as pings, hard starts, sluggish performance or rough idling. A routine tune-up will restore a vehicle back to its normal operating state, and contribute to the overall efficiency of the engine and emissions system.

• Check the brakes. This braking system is the vehicle’s most important safety item and brakes are a normal wear item that sooner or later will need to be replaced.

• Check the exhaust system for carbon monoxide leaks, which can be especially dangerous during cold weather driving when windows are closed. Regular exhaust system checks are critical to maintain a safe vehicle.

• Pack an emergency kit with the following items: ice scraper and snow brush, jumper cables, flashlight, flares, blanket, extra clothes, candles/matches, bottled water, dry food snacks and needed medication.

Photograph by: Allen McInnis