Driving in the snow might be second nature to those who live in the snow belt. But for those of us who rarely experience roads covered in white powder, such slippery conditions bring nothing but white knuckles and high anxiety.
The moment tires start to slide on a snow-covered road the heart skips a few beats, the adrenaline level spikes, the palms get sweaty, the mind races. It’s panic time.
At least that’s how driving on snow-covered roads used to make me feel before I took a cool day-long “Second Gear” class in Colorado at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, which is located in the hills just a few miles outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The school is open to anyone with a driver’s license, and during the Colorado snow season (mid-December – early March) since 1983, its instructors, all professional race drivers from one genre or another, have schooled nearly 90,000 students on the art and science of winter driving behind the wheel of Toyota all-wheel-drive cars and 4WD SUVs.
Learn Car Control
What I learned in this unique school is when you keep calm and understand the basic principles of driving on slick surfaces, you can sit back and actually enjoy the snowy conditions.
The basic skill needed to be a safe driver in snow boils down to one driving tip professional rally racer Mark Cox, lead instructor and director of the winter driving school, imparted on me: Vehicle control is predicated on driver patience and vehicle balance. This applies to all vehicles, cars, SUVs, pickups, and cross-overs.
As Cox says, “This isn’t a racing school. We’re about car control and safety, not speed. This is a winter driving school for the everyday driver, and we take great care to accommodate all skill levels and ages.” And, dollar-for-dollar it’s the best value one will ever find in a driving school—of any type.
Be Smooth On Snow
My instructor also drilled into my brain that a good winter driver pays close attention to vehicle speed in relation to the road surface, doesn’t get in a hurry, and keeps their eyes focused as far down the road as possible so they “have time to react to changing weather/road conditions.”
He also stresses the importance of “steering, accelerating and brake smoothly” –and only doing one of those actions at a time. Doing so keeps the vehicle’s weight balanced over those four palm-sized patches of rubber trying to hold your vehicle on the slippery surface beneath.
10 Snow Driving Tips
Here are ten more winter driving tips that all the instructors at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School share with participants to make them safer and more confident behind the wheel:
- Make sure the vehicle’s tires are properly inflated as indicated on the driver’s door placard. Under-/over-inflation reduces the gripping action of tires because the tread will not meet the road surface as it was designed to do.
- Studless snow tires are better for the roads than studded snow tires or tire chains; they provide similar traction, and don’t have to be removed when the road surfaces are clear.
- Switch from “all-season” tires to dedicated snow tires if you live in areas where snow and ice are certainties of winter driving. Snow tires have a softer tread compound and a unique tread design to provide 30-50 percent better winter traction and road-gripping capabilities than their “all-season,” “M&S” or mud-tire counterparts.
- Always run a matched set of tires on the vehicle. If “traction” or snow tires are used on the drive axle (front or rear), the vehicle will handle horribly because of the difference in traction front to rear.
- Keep your eyes down the road. Studies have shown that 80% of all accidents could be prevented if the driver had only 1.5 seconds more to react. Look down the road to identify problems before you become a part of them.
- Use grip effectively. When roads are slippery, use all of the tires’ grip available for one thing at a time. That’s either brake, accelerate or steer. Not a combination.
- Brake before entering a curve. Don’t brake through a curve. This allows the tires to use all of the grip available for steering. Don’t accelerate until you begin exiting the turn.
- If the front tires slide while making a turn, reduce the steering angle so they can regain grip and start rolling again. Turning the steering wheel more makes the front tires skid more.
- Driving in fresh powder snow provides better traction than driving in the hard-packed, icy tire tracks laid down by other vehicles, and oftentimes the shoulder of the road has more salt, sand, or gravel available that also helps tire grip.
- Driving too fast for the road conditions is the number one cause of winter vehicle accidents. Frequently “test” the road surface when driving in winter-type conditions to reveal how slippery the road surface is and help gauge a safe travel speed.
We hope these snow driving tips help to keep you less gripped, smiling more, and driving safer this winter.