Winter Driving Tips from the Professionals
It might be harder to get winter driver training this year, so here’s a refresher
At this time of year, we’d typically use this space to tell you about the many very good reasons why you should invest in a winter driver training program – possibly for yourself but certainly for your newly licensed teenagers – to improve your skills and keep your family safe on snowy or icy roads.
Of course, this isn’t a typical year. That’s not to say that courses are completely unavailable this winter. Some programs are planning to go ahead in a COVID-safe format, and finding one may just be a matter of doing some research. But since it’s a different prospect than usual, we’re taking the liberty of bringing some of that advice to you.
Here are a few of the tips and exercises commonly taught by some of Canada’s top driving instructors when it comes to staying safe and staying in control through winter road conditions.
Vision is everything. You can take any driving course on the planet – racing, winter driving, whatever – and there’s one statement you’ll consistently hear over and over again: look where you want to go.
“Looking as far ahead as possible is really important in the winter,” said Malcolm Strachan, a professional driving instructor who has coached at public and corporate winter drive events and during winter ice races. “If the car starts to slide sideways, you’re going to need to look where you want to go so you’ll naturally counter steer and be able to correct that slide.”
When you’re looking well down the road and in the direction that will help you escape a slide – and definitely not looking straight into the ditch that your car is headed toward – instinct takes over and your hands naturally follow the direction of your eyes, Strachan explained. But it does take some deliberate training for your brain to do this automatically.
“As humans, our vision is good for running along and making sure we don’t trip over sticks and stones, but unfortunately that doesn’t work out so well when we’re put into a car that can do 80, 90, 100 kilometers an hour,” he said. “Our brains want us to naturally look down in front of us. If you find yourself looking just in front of your front bumper and things seem to be catching you off guard, that should be a reminder to yourself to look further ahead, look towards the horizon. Try to see not just the stoplight ahead of you, but the stoplight beyond that.”
Practice gentle inputs. In winter conditions, being heavy on the brakes or jerky with your steering inputs will land you in a ditch faster than anything else.
Jennifer Cooper is the manager of Porsche Canada’s experience programs, including the Porsche Ice Experience hosted annually at the Mecaglisse ice driving facility north of Montreal. A modified version of the Porsche Ice Experience is being held in early 2021 barring any full lockdown orders from the provincial government and will be modified to remove hotel stays, social aspects such as meals, and sharing of cars outside family bubbles.
While the Porsche Ice Experience teaches low-grip performance and rally-style driving, some skills transfer to public roads. For example, Cooper says participants are commonly taught by instructors how to adjust their seating position correctly so that they can be relaxed and able to drive smoothly and with plenty of control.
“We talk about being relaxed in the car,” Cooper said. “Having a proper seating position is essential to controlling the car and feeling what the car is doing under whatever driving circumstances you’re in.”
Understand your car’s capabilities. And do whatever you can control to improve them. For example, there’s simply no excuse for not installing winter tires if you live and drive in Canada. Even if it doesn’t snow often where you live, the importance of winter tires has more to do with their stronger performance at lower exterior temperatures relative to all-seasons.
“Whether it’s wet, dry, snow, or ice, the compound of [a winter] tire is going to perform so much better any time you go below 7° degrees Celsius,” Strachan said.
Most Canadians understand that a car with front-wheel drive reacts differently than one with all-wheel drive, but a few folks could use a reminder that the latter doesn’t make anyone invincible.
“As you launch off a stoplight or a stop sign, you have a tremendous amount of grip [with all-wheel drive],” Strachan said. “In terms of braking and turning, all-wheel drive is going to provide absolutely zero benefit.”
Understanding when your anti-lock brakes will engage and how to control the pedal to release them and get your tires rolling again is a key skill, Cooper added, especially in winter.
“So many drivers out there have never done a full ABS brake in their own vehicle,” she said. “I always encourage someone that’s bought a new car to go find a safe place [to try it]. You need to know what that feels like in your vehicle so that you’re comfortable with what your vehicle’s capabilities are.”
Learn to enjoy it. For some drivers, this can be the toughest step. Many of us grew up watching the adults in our lives shift into white-knuckle mode as soon as a few flakes fell and unconsciously picked up those same patterns. But the truth is that once you learn the right skills and gain confidence in your own abilities, driving in the snow isn’t so daunting at all. Occasionally, it can even be fun.
“Most people think of putting their 911 away for the winter, but we take them out and go have some fun in them,” Cooper said. “It does lead to drivers being a little bit more relaxed in those conditions. … In situations where they find themselves caught off guard, maybe losing traction, those instructions quickly come to the back of their mind, and they remember what they were taught and how to recover. It becomes a less scary situation.”
Stephanie Wallcraft / Special to Wheels.ca