Tips for winter safety behind the wheel

Times staff and wires

Driving in the winter can be intimidating and dangerous, especially for us Floridians. Many are clueless when it comes to driving in slush or snow. If your travels take you north into frigid country, you'd better have some idea how to handle "that white stuff." And most of these driving techniques can be applied to when we have to drive through rain storms, or worse, misty conditions where the roads get really slick with oil and grime.

According to Mark Cox, the director of Bridgestone's Winter Driving School, a few precautions and a little focus can keep you out of harm's way when you're behind the wheel in the winter, or for us, more commonly on wet roads. "If you really think about it, driving is a sport," Cox said. "It requires physical dexterity, hand-eye coordination and some thought to be good at it."

Cox said stopping in the snow takes "four to 10 times longer" than stopping in dry conditions.

"When you think of what's connecting your car to the road, you only have four contact patches the size of your hand that connect you with the ground," he said. "You want to have the most connection that you possibly can for the best performance and safety."

While all-wheel drive can come in handy, Cox said, it isn't going to ensure your safety. "All-wheel drive can cause a false sense of security," he said. "One of the biggest misconceptions is that front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive behave differently or handle differently — but if you're using proper technique, all of those vehicles can handle the same."

Here are some of Cox's tips for driving in winter conditions:

Avoid cruise control

"If the traction is anything less than perfect on the road, you don't want to use cruise control," he said. "Even if there are just small patches of snow or ice, don't use cruise control. If you happen to hit one of those patches with even one wheel, and the power is still being applied, that can send the car into a skid — and the first thing you need to do to turn cruise control off is hit the brake — which is not something that is part of a skid correction. It makes a bad situation worse."

Don't pump your brakes

Cox said pumping the brakes to gain control of your car is "an urban myth," and should only be used in older vehicles that aren't equipped with anti-lock braking systems (ABS). "If you have a newer car that has ABS, you put your foot down on the brake and hold it down as hard as you can and allow the computer to pump the brakes for you," he said. "That's really all the ABS is — a computer pumping the brakes individually on each wheel instead of you as the driver doing it the old-school way on all four wheels at once."

Check your tires and windshield wipers

"When you are driving on snow, snow performance is determined by tread depth, so that is deeper in the new tires — and especially in snow tires," he said. "And people don't realize that it's not just the snow and ice that can impact the grip and traction on the road, but it's the winter temperatures, too. When you can see your breath, you need to pay attention."

Don't brake when you start to skid

"Typically, braking is not the answer to any type of skid," he said. "That's something people do when they panic. In many cases it will make it worse."

Cox said it's important to determine whether you are skidding from your front wheels or losing the grip on the rear wheels before taking action.

"If you go into a corner a little too fast — say you turn the steering wheel and nothing happens — that is a front-wheel skid. Take your feet off of both pedals. You can also decrease the steering a little bit to allow the wheels to roll more freely and regain the grip, at which point you can steer through the corner. If you have a rear-wheel skid — where you start to spin out — you should point the front wheels in the direction you'd rather be going."

Reports from the Chicago Tribune were used in this story.

Tips for winter safety behind the wheel 02/07/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 4:10pm]

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