Six steps to avoid slip sliding away

Our recent January version of freeway bumper cars — triggering more than one multi-car pileup — has resulted in a lot of finger pointing looking for someone or some organization to blame. A perfect combination of road surface temperatures, precipitation, and traffic density made for a frightening and potentially-lethal morning drive.

But no matter what the road or traffic conditions, the driver is the ultimate source of responsibility for maintaining control of his or her vehicle.

Here are a few tips to avoid the next perfect storm on your drive to or from work:

1) Colour Check

When you’re on a multi-lane freeway travelling at speed, it’s unsafe to tap the brakes or try a lane swerve to test your tire’s traction. You need to use your other senses to glean a clue of what’s happening to the road surface.

If the pavement has gone white or light grey and you can see water spraying off the tires of the vehicles around you, you’re rolling on a surface just as dangerous as black ice; polished snow. Keep in mind both these road surface coatings may only appear on certain sections of the highway but they usually form first on bridges or overpasses.

2) Listen

In winter, we seem to love to wrap ourselves in our rolling steel cocoons and crank the radio and heater up and dream about a southern vacation rather than concentrate on the roads. Crack one or more car windows just a touch so you can hear what’s happening. Listen to hear if your tires are on a dry surface or if you’re rolling through water.

At intersections, being able to hear clearly can pay off if a vehicle is approaching from outside your sight line, or if a pedestrian is trying to get your attention. A snowy commute is a great reason to lower the radio volume, turn off the cellphone, and focus on the conditions around you.

3) Easy On The Brakes

If your vehicle isn’t equipped with anti-lock brakes, locking up the front wheels is very easy to do on black ice or polished snow. As long as your front wheels are locked you have absolutely no steering control and your vehicle is headed wherever it’s pointed.

Pump the brakes if you’re headed for a pileup on slippery surfaces and look for a clearing or safe spot and stay focused on it. Your hands will automatically steer in the direction you’re looking towards during a panic stop.

If you have anti-lock brakes, don’t forget you can continue to steer while in a full-on hard braking event. Many drivers forget this and it’s a good idea to practice on an empty snow-covered parking lot to get a feel for your vehicle’s characteristics when the ABS comes on.

4) Distance Is Best Defence

If you’re travelling so close to the vehicle in front of you that you can’t see the bottom of their rear tires, then hand over your licence and take the bus.

Tailgating is a major cause of collisions during good weather and it’s absolutely insane when winter has us in its grip. If you’re not sure of the traction conditions then leave a good number of car-lengths between you and the vehicle ahead.

If you’re being tailgated, pull over and let the bonehead pass and smile and be smug knowing he or she will be less likely to arrive in one piece than you.

5) Clear The Decks

All that loose gear, office stuff, hockey gear, all those shoes, boxes, empty drink containers are just so much cannon fodder in the event of a collision. When your vehicle comes to a sudden stop from 80-100 km/h due to a collision, all that junk in your car will be heading for you at 80-100 km/h.

Your vehicle’s engineers did a thorough job designing and building the latest airbag and collision-protection systems, but all that high-tech stuff won’t do anything to save you from a hockey skate headed for your noggin’ when you rear-end a large truck.

Put your junk in the trunk — including the ice scraper and snow brush. If you don’t have a trunk (think SUV or minivan) then store it at home.

6) Winter Tires Are For Winners

Saved this tip for last because if you haven’t learned by now that winter tires on all four wheels are the best way to stay safe on winter roads, then the good folks who run the buses have a seat with your name on it.

Photograph by: Garth Gullekson, Ottawa Citizen