In winter, the road conditions are more variable, and when they do change, it can happen much faster. It’s therefore important to adjust your driving style accordingly. You must also be ready to handle any emergency situation, and have a vehicle that’s in good condition to tackle the cold season.
Get your vehicle ready
Winter is always very hard on the mechanics of an automobile, and a poorly tuned vehicle may end up really costing you. If you did not take your car in during the fall, early winter is not too late for a good tune-up that includes an inspection of the fuel and exhaust systems, electrical components and ignition system, and cooling system.
It’s always a good idea to have an emergency kit in your trunk in case of problems. In winter, the emergency kit needs extra equipment: shovel, snowbrush, scraper, traction aids or abrasive materials, and winter windshield wiper fluid. All of these items should be added to those you keep in your vehicle for the rest of the year.
For your safety, you should always have reflective triangles or a reflective vest, a battery-free flashlight, a small tool kit, a first-aid kit, a warm blanket, and non-perishable food on board in the event of a breakdown in a remote area.
As soon as you suspect that the road surface may be slippery, whether the cause is snow or ice, the golden rule is to ease up on the accelerator. By doing so, you ensure that your tires have more time to grip the road. Likewise, always turn the steering wheel slowly to maintain control of the vehicle.
Practice makes perfect
If you don’t feel entirely confident, you can always go for a practice session in a safe place—a large deserted parking lot, for example. Trying out a few turns, braking manoeuvres and intentional skids at a safe speed, without fear of untoward consequences, can’t hurt!
What to do in case of a front-wheel skid
If your front wheels start to skid—for example, when cornering—the outcome might not be serious as long as your tires start to grip the road again. But if centrifugal force is stronger than the front tires’ traction, your vehicle will start “pushing wide” of the desired trajectory. This is called understeer.
This type of skid is often caused by excessive speed going into a turn, or the wheels locking up. To stop if from continuing, you must reduce pressure on the accelerator or brake pedal, and steer the wheels in the direction of the turn, while looking in the direction you want the vehicle to go. You must execute your turn gently, which will probably be easy because the wheels are already pointing in the direction you want to go. Be careful, however, when it comes to traction as well as power: if you back off the accelerator too quickly, you may find the rear wheels skidding as well.
What to do in case of a rear-wheel skid
Alternatively, you may notice that the rear end of your vehicle has suddenly begun assuming its own trajectory. This is called oversteer. To solve the problem, turn the front wheels in the direction in which the back end has started swinging, while, of course, looking in the direction you want to go.
What often happens next is that the back end swings out again, but in the opposite direction (fishtailing). Be ready to repeat the same manoeuvre quickly, but remember to always steer gently. This is a tricky operation requiring great presence of mind: don’t forget, always look in the direction you want the vehicle to go, not the direction of the skid!
Avoiding sudden manoeuvres and adjusting your speed to the weather conditions are the basic rules of safe winter driving. But there are also specific conditions you need to watch out for.
A roadway may appear dry, but be covered in so-called black ice. This type of ice (also called clear ice) is invisible on the road surface, and it usually forms when the temperature is hovering around 0°C. Bridges, overpasses and underpasses are all areas where these nasty patches of ice can spell trouble for the inattentive motorist.
If you leave the city and drive into a rural area, road conditions can change suddenly from dry to snow- or ice-covered. The careful driver therefore reduces speed in this situation, to avoid surprises caused by radically reduced tire adherence.
Reaction time: your best ally!
In the summer months, it is strongly recommended that you follow the “three-second rule” to keep a minimum distance between you and the vehicle ahead. But in the winter, the space between you and the vehicle in front of you should be much greater—in severe conditions, you should be able to count up to six seconds or more. The longer the following distance, the more time you will have to make the right decision in an emergency situation, and driving will also be much more pleasant because you’ll be able to better anticipate traffic flow. Think about it the next time you take to the road!