Thursday, February 15, 2018

Snow Driving Techniques – Jedi-Level

For many people, the thought of driving on ice and snow is as frightening as a visit to that snowy planet that nearly killed Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Here in Kansas and Oklahoma, we don’t have to drive in adverse conditions most of the year, so we don’t get as much practice as our neighbors in other parts of the country and galaxy. It’s natural that winter roads can seem like hostile and unfamiliar territory, and yes, slippery surfaces are more dangerous, no doubt about it. But anyone can navigate them safely (and avoid a trip to the body shop) with the right equipment, the right winter driving techniques and a focused mindset.

Shift Your Mindset to a Higher Gear
To change the way you think about driving in winter, it’s best to begin with an understanding of the challenge, a mental picture of what’s happening between your vehicle and the road. A wet road reduces your tires’ ability to grip the surface by up to 30 percent, almost a third of your usual traction and a significant reduction in control. That’s a lot to give up, but it’s nothing compared to the effects of snow and ice, which can reduce tire-to-road friction by 85 to 92 percent—which translates to “almost no traction.” Simply understanding this fact puts you far down the path to becoming a better winter driver.
Now that you know what you’re dealing with, you can think about strategies for adjusting to it. Winter driving technique comes partially from practice—which we’ll get to—but mostly it’s the product of improved mental discipline. The following mindset adjustments can go a long way toward improving your safety—and your confidence:
  • Concentrate on how the vehicle is responding; the changing amount of play in the steering wheel, the unpredictable sensitivity of the brake and accelerator on slippery surfaces. Become “one” with the ship, young Padawan.
  • Focus intently on both traffic and road surface. Driving should never be a part-time job, but this is infinitely more true on hazardous roads. Don’t get caught up listening to friendly conversation or radio programs or—heaven forbid—looking at your smartphone. Your reactions need to be much faster than normal when piloting a few thousand pounds over a low-traction surface.
    • Keep one eye on other drivers. Constantly scan the driving dynamics around you, which means all around you; use your mirrors, turn your head … keep track of everything you can as it develops.
  • Get in the habit of “reading” the road. Keep your other eye on the road surface as often as possible. Shiny means icy and dull means clean road surface. The only exception is black ice, which is harder to see but very rare and usually happens when thin layers of fog freeze on the road. If the weather hasn’t recently brought fog, a clear looking patch of road is probably safe. And remember: even a plowed or treated road can trick you with a bad spot here and there, so keep your guard up at all times.
  • Analyze other drivers’ skill levels. Watch for small mistakes like braking too late, following too closely, distracted driving, etc. Create extra distance from these drivers when you safely can. Imagine a constantly changing zone of safety that places you in as little jeopardy as possible, as much of the time as possible, and stay at the center of it. This begins with keeping a safe stopping distance from the vehicle in front of you—up to 10 seconds on snow and ice. Check out the graphic below and see Auto Craft’s post on safe braking distance for more information.
  • Slow down. Everybody knows that, right? And we all start out slow when we leave the driveway, but it’s easy for your mind to switch to autopilot after a few minutes of driving; we all do it. Especially on familiar streets, like that daily drive to work. You get on a long, straight stretch where most of the snow has been beaten away by traffic, and you let your guard down, your speed starts climbing, then the road conditions change abruptly, and you’re going too fast. Drive at a speed that’s safe for the worst road conditions you may encounter because they can change from moment to moment, this time of year.

Work on Your Winter Driving Technique
Driving on snow and ice isn’t that much different from any other kind of driving; you simply have to refine what you’re already doing. Even on ideal road conditions, your brain is making hundreds of micro-decisions every minute as you speed up, slow down and navigate traffic. On slippery roads, the process calls for some additional refinement of the skills you’re already using. Here’s the short course:
  • Relax. Breathe. Anxiety makes us stupid and jumpy, so let the tension fall out of your shoulders and work through the anxiety. You’ll have better focus, more control over your vehicle and, most importantly, smoother reactions.
  • Use the steering wheel, accelerator and brake more slowly and smoothly. It takes longer for your tires to find traction on ice and snow, so ease into every change you make to the car’s speed or direction.
  • Feel—and listen to—your vehicle’s traction safety systems. Most vehicles have automatic braking (ABS) and traction systems, and you’ll hear a rapid, clicking sound that vibrates through the vehicle when one of these engages. This means you’re losing traction and should pull everything back a notch. (Note: older vehicles may not have these control systems, in which case, you need to learn the art of pumping the brake pedal to regain traction.
  • Slow down early and test the road surface before you’re committed to a potential collision situation. If you’re approaching a stop sign, slow down early and, keeping the front wheels straight, gently and briefly tap the brakes to gain a sense of your stopping distance.
  • Look farther ahead than usual—to the limit of your vision. When potential hazards appear, experiment with your stopping power well in advance of reaching them and proceed accordingly.
  • On residential streets, stay near the center of the road whenever possible. Many neighborhood streets have high center crowns, and if you edge too near the gutters on either side, you may get stuck there.
  • Practice losing and regaining control behind the wheel (in a safe place). Drive to the center of a large, smooth, unpopulated parking lot in your neighborhood and deliberately make some mistakes. Over-accelerate, turn the steering wheel too abruptly, brake too fast—do all the things that can go wrong on the road, and learn to recover from them. You’ll also learn the limits of your vehicle’s capabilities on slippery surfaces. This is actually an enjoyable activity—as long as you make your practice moves at the center of the parking lot, clear of obstacles and blank spots in the ice. While you’re having fun sliding around, try some of these techniques:
o   In general, learn to not overreact when you lose control. Your adrenaline may tell you to go all jerky and Karate-Kid, but making slow and smooth adjustments maintains better traction.
o   Crank the wheel to set yourself sliding sideways, then sharply turn the steering wheel (a half turn or less) back in the direction of the slide to correct it.
o   Experiment with the gas pedal to get a sense of how fast you can accelerate without losing traction. This will change depending on whether your front wheels are straight or turned, so get a feel for the difference.
o   While moving straight, tap the accelerator to make your tires lose traction, then gently experiment with the gas pedal to match tire rotation back up with your speed and regain traction.
o   Experiment with three different braking techniques: short pumps on the brake, constant braking to force the ABS to kick in, and light taps on the pedal. This is your brake foot’s vocabulary when you suddenly need to stop on slippery surfaces.
o   Note: we’re not advising you to put on a head of steam and go barreling across any parking lots, anywhere. Most of these techniques can be learned when your vehicle is moving less than 15 mph. Learn it at this speed, and you’ll have much greater control at any speed—and a clear sense of how fast you should be driving on different road conditions.
Keep Your Vehicle Winter-Ready
  • Deeper tire treads mean better traction. Buy the best all-weather tires you can afford. They help.
  • Top off your antifreeze and windshield washer. You’ll need them for reliable start ups and good visibility in harsh conditions.
  • Fill your gas tank frequently. Not only is water condensation in fuel more likely during cold conditions, you may need that extra couple of gallons if you find yourself stranded by unexpected weather.
  • Have your antifreeze checked or buy a dip tester and check it yourself. Add antifreeze or water, as necessary.
  • Keep a windshield scraper and windshield brush in the car for ice and snow removal. Better yet, keep two scrapers; they can break when the ice gets hard enough.
  • Pack an emergency kit with blankets, extra clothes, gloves, packaged snacks, jumper cables, a flashlight and a first aid kit. Some matches and a length of tough rope never hurt, in case your adventure really gets interesting.
  • Make sure your cell phone is charged before you get on the road. Better yet, buy a car charger for $5 or $10 and keep it plugged into the cigarette lighter.
  • Keep an eye on your tires. Cold weather can reduce tire pressure.
  • For longer trips, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to arrive. Check the forecast before driving into isolated areas.

If you get stuck in the weather …
  • Stay with your vehicle. You’ll be warmer, and it makes you easier to find. More people than you might think get lost and hurt in snowstorms after their vehicles become immobilized and they strike out on foot.
  • Tie a colorful piece of cloth to the antenna as a distress signal. Keep the dome light on at night, so you can be spotted more easily. It doesn’t use much juice, so your battery should be fine.
  • Run the engine only when necessary. No car is perfectly air tight, and toxic exhaust fumes can get in. If you do run the engine, crack a couple of windows and make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow and mud.
  • Wrap yourself with anything you can find for warmth; newspaper, floor mats, etc.
  • Learn more about winter driving safety.

Keep a lightsaber in the glove box
Just kidding, but do keep a Jedi-like calm about you when driving on slippery roads. Millions of people have mastered winter driving. You can, too. May the force be with you.

This content is provided by our friends at APR Paint Repair in Wichita, KS, and Auto Craft Collision Repair - Tulsa, OK; Wichita, KS; and Junction City, KS.

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