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Winter Driving Tips From the Experts

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Traffic Jam - Idaho Springs, Colorado

Traffic Jam – Idaho Springs, Colorado

With cold weather upon us, a Colorado expert on winter driving says that confidence is everything when it comes to avoiding accidents in ice and snow — conditions that dramatically reduce traction. Kurt Spitzner, operations manager and instructor at Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, provided his tips to Bernie Broudy writing for Outside magazine.

One key piece of advice Spitzner gives is that drivers in wintery conditions need to change their expectations about how long it will take to stop and how quickly the vehicle will respond when they turn the wheel. He cautions drivers not to overestimate what four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) can do. “But do know how to make your car’s safety features work for you,” he said.

The only advantage that 4WD and AWD have in winter is the ability to accelerate faster from a stop; they do not turn or stop any better than two-wheel drive, Spitzner said. So even with an AWD vehicle with snow tires, a driver still needs to slow down and increase stopping distance, he told Broudy.

In an article for appearing on Newsday, Matt Schmitz writes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reminds drivers to buckle their seat belts, put young children in child-safety seats and anyone younger than 13 in the back seat, and avoid drinking alcohol or any distractions while driving. It is also very important to get your car a checkup before setting out on the road, to make sure it is working well and has enough wiper fluid, proper tire pressure and coolant.

NHTSA advises drivers to stay out of “No-Zones,” the danger areas around large trucks and buses where crashes are more likely to take place. Some No-Zones are blind spots — areas around trucks and buses where your vehicle “disappears” from the drivers of those larger vehicles, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Share the Road Safely site points out. These blind spots include the Side No-Zone, Rear No-Zone, and Front No-Zone areas. The right-side blind spot is even more dangerous because trucks and buses make wide right turns. Regarding the Front No-Zone, FMCSA writes that you could get rear-ended if you cut in front of a vehicle too soon after passing and then immediately slow down. This is because it takes trucks and buses twice the time and distance to stop as cars. “So, when passing,” FMCSA writes, “look for the whole front of the truck in your rear-view mirror before pulling in front, and then don’t slow down!”

Schmitz writes:

NHTSA also reminds travelers that weather-related crashes account for a significant percentage of fatalities during winter holiday travel, totaling 4 percent for Thanksgiving 2012. “Preparedness” is the name of the game when it comes to guarding against both weather-related accidents and roadside emergencies.

The NHTSA advises drivers to clean snow, ice or dirt from windows, forward sensors, headlights, tail lights and the backup camera before going anywhere, and if you are renting a vehicle, familiarize yourself with it before driving it off the lot.

Broudy recommends drivers invest in good snow tires. Following are some of Spitzner’s top pointers:

1. If weather conditions are bad, don’t take unnecessary risks. “Know when to say when.” Use weather apps or sites to check your travel route, both before driving and while stopped during your trip. Dial 5-1-1 for road conditions and closures. Make an educated decision based on that information.

2. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination. Don’t speed.

3. Know that weather conditions change by the minute, and ice and snow affect traction. At any given spot on the road, traction changes with each vehicle that passes. Don’t base your braking or turning decisions on what other cars are doing.

4. Look as far down the road as you can. Always know where you want to go. “You need to be able to see a situation so that you can respond,” Spitzner says. “If you’re driving off the edge of your hood, things aren’t going to go well. By the time you respond, what you were responding to is history.”

5. Know how to use your vehicle’s antilock brakes (ABS), which prevent you from “effectively turning your tires into skis and skidding them along the nearest highway.” A rolling tire has more grip than a sliding tire. ABS also prevents the brakes from locking up the wheels into a skid if the driver slams on the brakes. The antilock braking system makes the wheels go forward and find traction.

6. Is is indeed O.K. to hit antilock brakes hard for maximum power; the tires will not lock. Your vehicle’s computer will manage the hydraulic pressure and bring your car to a smooth, safe stop. Know that if you press the brake pedal lightly, you will not harness your car’s maximum slowing power. However, if you are a well-trained, experienced driver with the right kind of tires, “threshold braking” is better than slamming on the ABS. Squeeze your brake pedal lightly to the point of imminent lockup but not so far that you skid.

7. All passenger-carrying vehicles are now required to have stability control, which works along with ABS. It selectively applies braking pressure to one side of the other when your car is skidding sideways, in order to keep the vehicle as straight as possible.

If your vehicle does not have antilock brakes, NHTSA gives the following advice:

For non-antilock brakes, pump the pedal gently.

In a skid, ease your foot off the gas and carefully steer in the direction you want the front of your vehicle to go; stay off the gas and brakes until you regain control.

The Colorado Department of Transportation provides many winter driving safety resources, as this blog has noted.

Image by Greg Younger.


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