By Carter Jung and Andrew Comrie-Picard
Driving is an art. Whether it’s being smooth on the street or pushing the envelope in a race car, the ability to drive well is as delicate an ability as dance. And if normal driving is a waltz, then winter driving is ballet. And I’m here to stop you from skidding into Swan Lake.
The challenge in winter is the compromised grip of the tire with the road surface. Normally, when you turn the wheel or hit the brakes, you have a reasonable expectation that your car will respond accordingly. However, once you compromise that tire-to-road grip due to freezing conditions, that goes out the chilly window.
Fortunately, I know quite a bit about freezing weather as a Canadian race car driver, stunt coordinator and automotive journalist. I’ve won rally car races in the snow at -30°F sliding sideways at 120 mph, felt the waves of the Arctic Ocean hitting the three feet of ice below the wheels of my car, and helped develop some of the winter tires you can buy for your car today.
Here are five tips I’ve learned that I want to pass on to help keep you safe on the road this winter:
1. WINTER TIRES - If you live somewhere that has consistent snow cover in the winter or the ambient temperature hovers below 40°F, you must have winter tires. I repeat: must have.
With advances in rubber compounds over the last decade and three-dimensional siping (i.e., thin slits on the surface of a tire) that maintains a stable tread block while giving more inches of biting tread, winter tires have become your best weapon. Winter tire compounds are designed to work in freezing temperatures in a way that even the best all-season tire simply cannot, given the compromises all-seasons have to make for the rest of the year.
Look for the “three-peak mountain snowflake” on the sidewall when choosing a winter tire. And know that even the worst winter tire is better than the best all-season tire in winter braking and steering tests. You’ll enjoy multiple-car-lengths-shorter stopping distance, keeping you from sliding into the intersection. Consider getting a second set of inexpensive rims and leaving them mounted all year round, and swapping them when temperatures drop.
2. THE MOST DANGEROUS TO DRIVE - Think winter is just winter? Think again. When we go to compete, we take as many as five different winter tires to cover the many different snow conditions we might encounter during a rally. And we’re relative amateurs; the Inuit of Northern Canada have, at last count, at least 53 words to describe “snow.”
What do you think is the worst winter condition for driving? The cold blizzard with heavy snow? The still, bitter night with black ice? The deep snow drifts after a big storm? The correct answer is none of them.
The very worst traction in winter comes when the ambient temperature is just above or just below freezing. A sheen of liquid water can accumulate on top of smooth melting ice, making tire grip nearly non-existent. Ironically, when ice gets very cold it gets almost sticky, forming a crystalline structure that can work almost like sandpaper if the surface is stable, however, don’t trust it under any circumstances. Remember that temps around 32°F are the most dangerous and to exercise extreme caution when driving.
3. ANTICIPATE - Driving a car in the summer is like piloting a jet ski: you can make a lot of sudden, extreme driving inputs and physics and the technology of the machine allow you a huge margin of error. But driving in the winter is like piloting an ocean liner: steering inputs that you make now might take effect in an hour. This means that you must look much farther down the road.
Get your eyes up from the brake lights in front of you and allow plenty of following distance. Look through the vehicle’s windshield in front to monitor what’s happening to the string of cars ahead. Wonder why there are 20-car pileups in winter? Because braking distance has doubled or tripled, and few people look far enough down the road.
Also, be aware of surface changes. If you’re changing lanes from slushy ruts across snow, be ready for the steering wheel to pull you into the trough. Constantly compare your visual cues to the feedback in the seat of your pants, and learn to integrate them to anticipate what you’ll feel next.
4. BE SMOOOOOTH - Any time you saw at the wheel, stab the brakes, or mash the throttle, you’re upsetting the balance of your car. With the decrease in tire grip on frozen surfaces, the need to keep even weight on all tires is much greater.
As such, depress the brake slowly. Smoothly wind the steering on and back off. Roll onto the throttle. Doing the opposite invites trouble in slippery conditions, and once you destabilize a car on snow or ice, it’s much harder to get it back under control again. True winter maestros have a slow, smooth touch.
If you ever feel that sickening sensation of the wheel going slack in your hand as you hit black ice, stay steady on the controls and ride it out. You’ll be over the patch in a few car lengths, and you want your steering pointing the same way you went in.
5. PREPARE THE CAR - Winter tires are crucial, but they require all of a car’s systems to work together. Old windshield wipers get hard in the cold and streak across the windshield. Summer washer fluid may turn to slush or, worse, freeze on the windshield. Poor wheel alignment will make the car less predictable as it crosses surface changes. The first breath of fall is a great time to check your car’s general health.
If you live in a rural area or a very cold one, consider a survival kit with some foil heat blankets and candles to stay warm in a non-running car until help arrives. Our standard mantra on Arctic expeditions is to take a can of dog food: if your emergency rations are granola bars, you might eat them when you get a bit hungry. With the dog food, you’ll only eat that when you really need it. But hopefully it won’t come to that. With a little preparation and a bit of awareness, by being smooth with your driving and anticipating further ahead, you too can be a Winter Master.
Oh, and trust me on the tires.