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Surviving Winter Driving

MSN Autos 10/7/2014 Matthew de Paula
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The image of a driver's-ed car buried up to its doors in a snowbank is a poignant reminder for Sgt. Brian Copple of the Illinois State Police. It illustrates how quickly one can lose control in snowy conditions.

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Fortunately, no one was injured that day in Normal, Ill. "However, pride was very much hurt," Copple says.

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The event happened like many winter driving accidents. The student driver lifted off the gas and slammed on the brakes in an effort to slow down. The road was icy, so the car lost traction and started to spin out of control. It skidded across four lanes of traffic and lodged itself in the snowbank — right in front of a busload of the driver's classmates.

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"All the kids were jeering," Copple says. "The students and the instructor had to kind of dig their way out of the car because the doors wouldn't open. The poor kid never lived it down." Luckily, he did live.

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Many motorists make the same mistakes: They get overconfident, drive too fast and overreact when something goes wrong. "Most people tend to accelerate too hard, brake too soon, steer too much — in other words, they panic," says Mark Osborne, a program manager and instructor at Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center in Calumet, which runs a winter driving school.


It takes foresight and finesse to properly control a vehicle in slippery conditions, and the actions required to do so are often counterintuitive. Here are five common mistakes that experts say drivers make in the snow and ice, and what you can do to avoid them.

Mistake No. 1 – Driving Too Fast

Driving too fast in freezing and snowy weather is the most common cause of winter mishaps.

People often get overconfident driving on interstates, assuming that the roads are in better shape than they really are, Copple says. "They're not anticipating that the precipitation has had the opportunity to freeze. It's a false sense of security."

Drivers of vehicles with four-wheel drive can be particularly prone to audacious behavior behind the wheel. Experts caution drivers not to overestimate the capabilities of four-wheel drive. It can improve traction, but it does not improve cornering and braking effectiveness in slippery conditions, they say.

Tips to avoid this mistake: Slow down — obviously. When the temperature is below freezing and snow or rain starts to fall, that should be a clear signal to ease off the accelerator, even if the road surface seems safe.

There's no magic speed limit for snow or ice. "There are some times that literally 15 or 20 miles an hour is too fast," Copple says. "And there are other times that one could certainly drive 45." Pay close attention to how your vehicle behaves on the road and slow down if you feel the wheels start to slip.

Snow and rain aren't the only indicators of slick roads. "Sometimes just a little bit of humidity will cause black ice," says Mark Cox, director at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which instructs "everyone from military special forces in night-vision goggles all the way down to kids who've just gotten their driver's license." Err on the side of caution.

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Mistake No. 2 – Not Looking Far Enough Ahead

Experts agree that many people don't look far enough ahead to identify issues before they become problems. "And that's typical of most every driver, whether it's on pavement or on ice or snow," Cox says.

Anticipating problems well in advance of reaching them on the road is especially critical in winter driving because it takes four to 10 times longer to stop on snow or ice than it does on bare asphalt.

Tips to avoid this mistake: Continually scan the road ahead to identify potential issues, such as an icy patch, a wreck, debris in the roadway or inclines and curves that could pose a problem when traction is low.

Look out for bridges, overpasses and parts of the road that don't get direct sunlight, because these tend to ice over faster than other surfaces.

When roads are slick, experts recommend increasing the following distance from vehicles ahead to at least twice the 3-second minimum recommended by the National Safety Council. Larger vehicles should increase the following distance even more.

Mistake No. 3 – Slamming On the Brakes

Many motorists will instinctively pound the brake pedal when something unexpected happens. On dry roads, that's usually not a problem. But on slick roads it is, because once the tires lock up and lose traction, you lose all control of the vehicle.

And when a car is skidding with the wheels locked up, pressing the brakes harder makes things worse — yet it might be the first reaction many drivers have.

"As soon as you lock the wheels up, you've lost braking effect, so it's important to adjust quickly," Cox says. "As long as the wheel is rolling, you still have traction and braking force."

Tips to avoid this mistake: First of all, don't panic and don't overreact when something unexpected happens. Don't automatically jam on the brake pedal.

Going back to the example of the student driver above, Copple says that lifting off the gas and letting the car naturally slow down would have been the correct course of action.

When you do have to brake, the technique to use on slick roads depends on whether your car has an anti-lock brake system.

"If you do have ABS brakes, just put your foot down and let technology do its thing," Cox says.

If your car doesn't have ABS, you have to be more judicious with the brakes and pump them when trying to stop on slick roads. "If you brake too hard and lock up the wheel, you need to release quickly, let it roll, regain traction and then try to brake again and again and again, which is basically just a manual version of what ABS does for you," Cox says.

Mistake No. 4 – Braking and Accelerating Through Turns

A tire has just so much traction in the rain and snow, so trying to do more than one thing at a time — such as steering and braking, or steering and accelerating — drastically reduces the effectiveness of both and increases the chances your tires will lose grip. Cox says this is one of the most common mistakes students make at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School.

"If you don't have enough traction to steer, you certainly don't have enough traction to steer and brake." The same goes for steering and accelerating.

Tips to avoid this mistake: Use all of your car's available grip for only one thing at a time; don't steer and brake or accelerate simultaneously.

"Brake in a straight line, coast through the corner as you decelerate, and only accelerate after you're finished turning the steering wheel," Cox says.

If you find yourself carrying too much speed into a turn and the car starts sliding off the road, don't slam on the brakes and don't turn the steering wheel harder — both of those actions make the situation worse. Instead, turn the steering wheel a little bit back toward center to get the wheels rolling again and regain traction. Then steer back into the corner.

"It's a very difficult maneuver because that really is counterintuitive," Cox says. "It means you're steering toward the cliff that you're trying to avoid with that correction."

Mistake No. 5 – Accelerating Too Hard

We've all seen it: A vehicle stops at an intersection, then spins its wheels wildly in an effort to get moving again. Or, you get halfway up an incline and can't get any farther.

Tips to avoid this mistake: Be gentle with the throttle and back off when the wheels start to spin. Carry as much speed uphill as possible. "As soon as you spin the tires, you create an ice patch and you're done," Cox says.

Drive outside of icy ruts, which are often the slipperiest part of a winter road. "You go six inches to the right or left into a little bit fresher snow, you have better traction," Cox says. If you're really stuck, place your car's floor mats, bottom-side up, in front of the wheels to give the tires something to bite into.

Cox encourages drivers not to get bogged down in the details of how vehicles with front-, rear- and four-wheel drive behave differently, as weight transfers to the front wheels when you lift off the gas and to the rear wheels when you accelerate. "The reality is, if you're using good technique, they're all very similar," he says. "If you're using a poor technique, they do respond very differently, because low traction magnifies bad technique."

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Matthew de Paula wanted to be an automotive journalist ever since reading his first car magazine in grade school.After a brief stint writing about finance, he helped launch and became the site's editor in 2006.Matthew now freelances for various outlets.

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