Several years ago I attended a 3 day racing school at Road Atlanta.
In the school I remember the reaction of my instructor while I was driving an Audi A4 with overinflated tires around a wet skid pad. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”, he was surprised because rookie’s like me were not supposed to be able to balance, or invoke understeer and oversteer, precisely at the instructors command right out of the shoot. I replied, “actually, I haven’t done this particular exercise before, but I have driven vehicles on snow and ice since I learned to drive20 years ago”. Therefore, it seems one can by repetition, and almost unknowingly, pick up skills to drive at the race track by regularly driving in wet slushy, snow covered, and icy conditions.
A reduced traction scenario is ideal for learning car control at much lower speeds, hence the reason for overinflated tires and a wet skid pad at my racing school. But those of us in the more wintery areas of North America should take the challenge of the winter driving season as a car control refresher. Of course, many drivers also demonstrate their severe lack of skill in this season as well by tobagganning down hills, or flying off the road for no apparent reason. You know who you are! Maybe this is the real reason why I have decided to stand on my soapbox.
Here are some things everyone can do to help improve your winter driving skills:
• Take a winter driving school (and take your significant other or teenage kids a long too, if possible), here you can learn it all in a day or two from your local car club or auto manufacturer running schools in your area. Note that this is unbelievably fun too!
• Practice your skills in a safe and secluded area: try braking in a straight line, also gently braking while turning (trail braking), and recovering from understeer or oversteer conditions. Practise makes perfect! After some repetition you will eventually get the hang of it. Over time you will develop a light smooth touch on all controls and be able to feel traction and weight transfer through the steering and by the seat-of-the-pants.
• Think vision: look ahead to where you want to go...not where you are currently heading (ahhhh...crunch!). Also, look ahead to look for hazards on the road in the far distance.
• Test the traction conditions with a little brake test in your quiet neighbourhood area before hitting the busy streets.
• Too much speed is the great “no-no” of winter driving. Know when it is time to slow down, also remember the Tortoise and the Hare, “slow and steady wins the race”. Winter driving is really a game of survival, one just wants to make through the season in one piece!
• Keep all windows clear of ice, snow, and interior humidity. Makes sense....but some of us are in too much of a rush, aren’t we?
• Just like at the track....check your ego at the gate. Once well practised in winter driving skills you still never become invincible as the laws of physics can take the wheel from you at any time if you are not fully concentrating on the job at hand. This is the point when you become a passenger on a toboggan with no control and you are just along for the ride. Time to assume the “crash” position, especially those driving AWD vehicles with the fabled infinite grip option.
Winter is officially here on December 21st at 5:47 pm (UTC – Universal Coordinate Time), so let the learning begin!
I wish you all a safe and happy Holiday Season, and take care driving out there no matter what conditions Mother Nature (or your Mother in-law) throws at you.