Winter blunderland

How to steer clear of cold-weather slip-ups

A heavy snowfall can turn a landscape into a postcard-perfect scene but it can also create a slippery slope—in every sense of the word. The good news is that winter driving doesn’t have to be a white-knuckle nightmare if you understand your vehicle and learn to cope with the conditions. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over time—underscored by a visit to the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Think ahead The sooner you anticipate problems, the sooner you can react. Look as far ahead as possible. Learn to identify warning signs (cars skidding on black ice; cars braking hard to avoid a pileup; stalled cars blocking lanes). Slow down and leave more space between your vehicle and the one ahead so you’ll have more room to react.

Sudden movements—jerky steering, harsh acceleration, slamming on the brakes—are much more dangerous in slippery conditions than on dry pavement because the effects are magnified. Avoid multi-tasking Drivers can get into trouble on slick roads when trying to do too many things at once. Try to use only one control at a time (for example, brake, steer or use the gas pedal). Braking or accelerating while steering around an obstacle can throw off the car’s balance. Also, don’t use a cellphone, eat, smoke or surf for radio stations.

The safest way to take a corner is to do all your braking while you’re driving in a straight line, then steer around the curve without accelerating. As you begin to straighten the wheel after making the turn, gently start to accelerate.

Anti-lock brakes won’t always stop in a shorter distance than conventional brakes, particularly on gravel or in deep snow. Their big safety advantage is that they prevent wheel lockup during hard braking, allowing motorists to “stomp and steer” around obstacles in emergencies. But remember, a car with anti-lock brakes can still skid.

Is your vehicle equipped with traction control or a stability control system? Traction control will prevent wheelspin on slippery surfaces, while stability control systems are designed to keep a car from spinning sideways. Read the owner’s manual or contact your dealer to find out how these systems work. Don’t allow high-tech gizmos to lull you into a sense of invincibility. Never count on technology to replace good judgement.

All-season tires are a compromise and can’t match true winter tires in harsh conditions. Check the side wall of tires for a snowflake-and-mountain icon, the symbol that separates true winter tires from all-season types. Tire pressure—which affects proper grip—changes with the season, losing about a pound of pressure (half a kilogram) for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius) drop in temperature. Check tire pressure at least once a month. Clear wheel wells of snow before driving.

Make sure your heater and defroster are in good working order. For maximum visibility on the road, completely clear snow from your car, especially the headlights and windshield. If your windshield wipers are skipping, chattering or smearing, replace wiper blades with winter ones. Top up the windshield-washer fluid weekly. Wear good sunglasses to cut glare.

Be cautious on bridges and overpasses in winter. Since they’re exposed to blasts of cold air, they can freeze up even when surrounding roads are ice-free.

Before you lose control, learn how your vehicle reacts by practising hard cornering and emergency braking in an empty, snow-covered parking lot. Consider enrolling in a winter-driving course or skid school. Check the Yellow Pages for local courses.

Make sure you carry the following supplies: booster cables; scraper and snow brush; gloves, hat and blanket; windshield-washer fluid; Call Police sign; matches and candles; flashlight and fresh batteries; traction aids; non-perishable food.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is a consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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