The fact is, winter weather conditions can be a real challenge to the safety of both drivers and pedestrians. But knowledge, combined with a little common sense, patience and alertness, can help you get through hazardous Canadian winters unscathed.
Fact vs. fiction
There's a commonly held belief that drivers should keep up with the "flow" of traffic despite poor driving conditions. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) says this is not the case at all. The CAA advocates slowing down from your normal driving habits during inclement weather, regardless of the speed of drivers around you. Give yourself plenty of breathing space, make sure there's a lot of room in front of you and between you and other vehicles and never brake suddenly. Drive only as fast as conditions will allow, regardless of the posted speed limit.
Don't lower the air pressure in your tires for better traction. The CAA recommends having the correct tire pressure at all times of year, as per the manufacturer's instructions. This ensures the tires will function at their best capacity. Cold air outside already has the effect of lowering your tire pressure, so be certain to check your tires regularly during the winter months.
All-season or snow tires?
Simple. Snow tires offer the best grip and are the most effective when driving in an area that gets plenty of snow. That's what snow tires are for. All-season tires are sold all across North America, but not every community experiences the same weather as yours does in all seasons.
Some individuals pack extra weight into their vehicles to improve traction. This is a mistake, according to the CAA. Not only does it increase the wear on the vehicle's tires, it can also make your transport less effective than designed by the manufacturer. On top of that, the extra weight burns more gasoline, thus causing a detrimental effect on the environment. Exception to the rule: Pickup trucks are front heavy. To evenly distribute weight and limit fishtailing, owners can weigh down the flatbed with bags of sand or kitty litter (also handy for getting unstuck after heavy snowfalls).
Front, back or four-wheel drive?
Honestly, it doesn't matter. While higher ground clearance on some four-wheel drive vehicles such as SUVs may help you when you're trying to get unstuck, none are any less likely to go into a skid or help you stop any better. Also, SUVs and other high clearance vehicles have a higher centre of gravity and are more likely to roll over in a given situation. Four-wheel drives tend to be heavier too, so they make take longer to stop. Click here for advice on getting out of a skid, whether you're driving a front, back or four-wheel drive.
Tips for driving in inclement weather
• Give yourself plenty of time. Winter is not the best time to be driving anywhere in a hurry. If you can't hit the road early, call and tell your boss you're going to be late. More than likely, she'd rather you arrive late than not at all.
• Clear all snow from your vehicle. Clear your hood, roof, windows, mirrors, headlights, tail lights, and tailpipe. It increases your visibility and prevents snow from flying off your vehicle and impairing the sightline of other motorists.
• Drive gently. Don't accelerate or brake suddenly. As a matter of fact, don't do anything suddenly. Take the weather and driving conditions into consideration. Be safe and aware of others.
• Look ahead. Especially during times of poor visibility, make sure to scan the roadway ahead of you for stopped or slowed vehicles, as well as pedestrians. Slippery footing or deep snow may slow any pedestrian from moving quickly.
• Keep your lights on. See and be seen.
• Plenty of room. Leave three times the normal amount of space between you and the car ahead to ensure you have time to stop.
• Watch for pedestrians. They may cross at an uncontrolled intersection and might not realize that it's going to take you longer to stop. Also, their progress -- particularly that of children and seniors -- may be hampered by slippery surfaces and heavy snow.
• Carry a cellphone. If you get stuck or see someone else in trouble, they're great for calling for help. But don't use it while you're driving unless it's an emergency. Pay attention to the road, watch for pedestrians and look out for winter driving dangers.
• Maintain your vehicle. Be sure to have a fall maintenance tune-up on your tires, exhaust system, heating and cooling system, etc. During the winter months, don't forget to regularly check your tire pressure, keep your gas tank full, keep your windshield washer fluid levels high and maintain your windshield wipers. Read Winterize your car.
• Don't drive. If you're not a regular driver, have little experience with bad weather or simply aren't comfortable, find another means of transportation, if possible.
Winter driving dangers
It's the thin layer of ice that forms on roadways from the exhaust of vehicles. As many have already learned, it's quite slick and poses a danger to drivers and pedestrians. So if the road ahead looks like black and shiny asphalt, slow down. It's probably black ice.
Shaded areas, bridges and overpasses
Shaded areas with colder temperatures are more likely to ice over first, so beware. The same applies to bridges and overpasses because they ice over from the cold air passing both above and below them.
Intersections and heavy traffic areas
Heavy traffic areas such as intersections can make any ice surface even more polished and slippery, says the CAA, so take special care when driving over them. Be especially weary at intersections, where making turns and pedestrian traffic heighten the danger.
Strong or sudden wind gusts can make steering on a slippery surface even more difficult, meaning even moderate acceleration or braking can cause a skid. Slow down, drive gently.
Regaining control after a skid
The following advice for regaining control of your vehicle (whether it's rear-wheel, front-wheel or four-wheel drive) are reprinted here, courtesy of the Canadian Automobile Association.
Keep control of your vehicle to avoid collisions
Winter collisions can occur when your vehicle skids. Remember that not all vehicles respond the same to icy, slippery roads. You must know how to handle your vehicle and how it responds in various weather conditions. Consult your owner's manual and familiarize yourself with your vehicle's braking system and tire traction. You may want to consider taking a driver education course that teaches emergency driving techniques.
Skids can best be avoided by driving for conditions, slowing down, allowing extra time to get to your destination, anticipating lane changes, turns and curves; slowing down in advance; making smooth, precise movements of the steering wheel and by being sensitive to how your vehicle is steering. Even careful and experienced drivers experience skids.
Don't panic! Learn to handle skids and remember that sometimes, the vehicle will skid a second and even third time after the initial skid.
DO NOT PANIC.
If the rear wheels lose traction, use these steps to regain control after a skid:
1. Take your foot off the brake if the rear wheels skid due to hard or panic braking.
2. Ease off the gas pedal if the rear wheels lose traction due to hard acceleration (rear-wheel drive).
3. Shift to neutral.
4. Look down the road in the direction you want the front of the car to go and be sensitive to the feel of the car and how it is responding to your steering.
5. To regain control of the vehicle, steer gently in the direction of the skid of the rear of the vehicle. Just before the skid ends, bring the front wheels straight. Sometimes the vehicle will skid in the opposite direction, so you may have to repeat the movement until the vehicle stabilizes.
6. Once the vehicle is straight, return to a driving gear and accelerate gently so that engine speed matches road speed.
Front-wheel skids are caused by hard braking or acceleration and by entering a curve too fast. When the front wheels lose traction, you lose steering ability. The best way to regain control if the front wheels skid is:
1. If the front wheels skid from hard braking, release the brake. If the wheels spin from loss of traction due to acceleration, ease off on the accelerator (front-wheel drive).
2. Shift to neutral.
3. If the front wheels have been turned prior to the loss of traction, don't move the steering wheel. Since the wheels are skidding sideways, a certain amount of braking force will be extended.
4. Wait for the front wheels to grip the road again. When traction returns, you'll regain steering control.
5. Return to a driving gear and gently steer in the direction you want to travel. Gently accelerate until engine speed matches road speed.
Sometimes all four wheels lose traction -- generally at high speeds under adverse conditions. The most effective way to get your vehicle back under control when all four wheels skid is:
1. Remove your foot from the brake or accelerator.
2. Shift into neutral.
3. Look and steer in the direction you want the front of the car to go.
4. Wait for the wheels to grip the road again. As soon as the wheels regain traction, you will travel in the direction you want to go.
5. Return to a driving gear and maintain a safe speed.
NOTE: Avoid using overdrive on slippery surfaces.