Winter Driving: A Mixture of Myth and Reality Backed by Preparation

This has been one weird start to the winter season in the United States. In areas where you normally expect there to be snow and ice, the days have been warmer than normal and in areas where you expect balmy breezes - or at least mild temperatures - there have been snow and ice storms.
No Experience a Problem
This has led, unfortunately, to drivers, who have never expected or experienced winter snow and ice to face conditions that have them befuddled as they are totally unprepared and it has meant accidents and some deaths.
Indeed, moving outside the US, there was a reported ice storm in China that left millions in damage as a high-speed parade of ultra-expensive autos smashed into each other like ping-pong balls as 25 high-performance vehicles bounced off each other and the Armco guardrail, leaving serious injuries and wrecks all over the highway. The drivers were clearly unprepared for "black ice driving" - driving on road the merely looks wet but is actually coated with ice. It is very common in the norther tier of states in the US and in countries where snow or ice are regular visitors.
(If you find yourself in this situation, the best advice is pullover and wait until it either warms up enough to drive again or until a truck with an ice-melt drives by and the condition is resolved.)
Driver's Education Not Enough
Unfortunately, winter driving is not part of the standard curriculum in most Driver Education programs anywhere in the world. In the US, for example, the aim is to get the driver behind the wheel as quickly as possible so the driving school can focus on getting another class started and moved behind the steering wheel as driving schools focus not on real training but on the business of driving and in their case it is training as many students as possible.
When it comes to learning how to drive anywhere in the world, unless you pay for some highly specialized and expensive one-on-one training, learning to drive at any time of the year is urban legend involving swimming. That legend has it that many kids were simple taken out in a boat to a distance offshore and thrown in the water with the single instruction, "If you want to keep from drowning you'd better learn to swim." And the kid, at least, learns to dog-paddle his way to to shore.
If that were really the case, then, it would be a great way to teach swimming, but the last time we heard from any reliable sources at the Y or the Red Cross, their swimming and life-saving classes are going as strong as ever, so the "sink or swim" story is just an urban legend.
That may be the case for swimming, but it certainly isn't the case for driving in the fall or winter, especially above 35-degrees North latitude, what you might call the worldwide "Snow Belt" where you have a whole range of things you have to watch out for. In no particular order, they include:
Black ice: It looks just like wet road until you hit the brakes and the ABS just keeps pumping as your front-drive car keeps skidding in the direction you were traveling (and you thought front-drive was good, didn't you? It's only good for packaging as you can shrink a car's size but keep the interior spacious so five can still ride in comfort. All it really does is make your car front-heavy so it acts like an arrow with an extra-heavy arrowhead and it flies straight and true without deviating from its path. That's the situation with front-drive where 69 percent of the weight is over the driving wheels. Believe it or not, at one time this was advertised as a safety feature.
Leaves: At this time of year, leaves at intersections look pretty harmless, but they are not. As the leaves lay there, they actually freeze in layers with the top layers thawing during the day, but the most sodden at the remain frozen or partially frozen all day long, despite sunlight. Approaching an intersection, if you hit your brakes hard, your car cab skid as if it were on black ice. The ABS tries, and actually does grab, the top layers of leaves, but the nasty wet and frozen ones at the bottom set up a situation where the top layers just slide along the bottom layers. It is a situation that can be just as deadly as black ice with your anti-lock braking (ABS) vainly trying to stop your car.
ABS: Just when you thought you had a tool that would save your neck in an accident comes the realization that all your ABS system is doing is pumping the brakes madly as you try to steer your car out of a potential skid. If you are lucky, your car will stop; if not, well there's always that wall or tree to stop you. All ABS does is pump the brakes, it doesn't negate physics and the physics of front-wheel-drive say your car is going to skid straight ahead, no matter what you do. In truth, ABS is meant to work in dry conditions when your tires have full contact with the road.
All-Wheel-Drive: This is another one of those wonderful myths. All-wheel-drive, the myth says, gives you ultimate control, but that is not exactly the case. Most "all-wheel-drive" systems, are not really full-time. Some may say "real-time" but the truth of the matter is that there are force sensors at each wheel and on the transmission that watch the traction available to each wheel. Most of the time, the vehicle will remain in front-wheel-drive - that's the truth of it - until the sensor system believes one of the rear wheels is losing traction and then the whole system activates and splits the power between the front wheels and the rear wheels 50-50 so that you have all four wheels now trying to handle a situation that it is really not built to handle. So, if your vehicle is in a skid you have all four wheels working helping to drive you into that skid. There are some systems, such as BMW's X-Drive and Mercedes-Benz that do attempt to compensate but those are much more expensive systems than say Honda's or Toyota's all-wheel-drive.
Four-Wheel-Drive: This is a real story in winter driving. If you have a vehicle with a true four-wheel-drive system, such as the ones found in real four-by-fours such as the GMC Tahoe or Chevy Suburban then you have a an automatic system that combines Electronic Stabilization and Traction Control so that just all four wheels are in play but the amount of force at each wheel does back off when traction is poor on one wheel, while another wheel receives a bit more power and a third wheel may have an automatic touch of braking. You won't know it is happening because all of this is electronically controlled. It's a wonder of microelectronics, but it is usually reserved for true SUVs and some Crossovers like the Caddy and the Lexus series. Infiniti also has a reasonable four-wheel-drive system. And, believe it or not Nissan's Murano and Rogue also have better than average four-wheel-systems. The Mercedes M-Series is also a cut above, so you do have a wide range of choices.
With all of this said, what is the solution to winter driving? It's really very simple, just follow the old rules driving that you've likely heard 100 times before. They include:
*Stay home, if you are facing a winter storm, and work from home, if you can.
*If you must drive, leave plenty of time to get to your location and make sure you have at least half-a-tank of gas (full is better as the extra weight does help stabilize things a bit).
*Also, slow down because your visibility will likely be limited by ice, snow, interior frost (it does help to run the air conditioning, believe it or not to help keep our windows clear), along with splash from other vehicle.
*Make sure all of your car's systems are working properly. In fact, if you have waited until now to have services performed you're too late as they should have been completed last month.
You have to make sure your car is well tuned and the brakes work properly. Yes, even the ABS, although it really makes little difference in a skid on ice. And, you have to ensure that your car's coolant and heating systems are working correctly. Also, a fresh set of rubber all around might not be a bad idea and you may be able to find the proper winter tire (M/S or mud and snow tires just don't cut it in a blizzard) for your vehicle and, even if you run a front-drive model, mount snows on all four wheels and be sure to have a set of chains ready in case you need it.
Keep flares in your trunk along with a blanket and folding shovel. It's also a good idea to keep some high-energy food in your trunk, even if you have to buy a set military MREs (meals ready to eat). Also a good jumper box or set of cables is a good idea as well, as a spare set of windshield wiper blades.
The list can go on but it's now also a good idea to make sure you have a charged cellphone and spare battery with you just in case and a GPS system might not be a bad idea, as well.
These are just a few ideas of what you'll need for winter driving. But the most obvious advice is still the best slow down and anticipate and finally drive as if your foot is on eggs. In other words, in the snow and ice less is more all movements should be very deliberate and carefully executed.
Never take a turn quickly and always anticipate that out of every side street or lane someone will be coming who isn't looking so you have to watch out for both of you. In other words, drive defensively at all times.
Having spent more than 30 years as the dean of Boston's newspaper auto columnists, I have more than a fair to middling knowledge of cars and their problems plus how to drive; how to buy; and how to use the system. Interestingly, I not only spent many years as an automotive writer, but I also spent nearly seven years selling retail either as the Internet Sales Manager for a major Boston area Honda preowned store, as well as serving as a retail salesman on the floor of a couple of domestic dealerships. I can write authoritatively about this topic because I have lived it since my Mom ran a brake rebuilding/relining shop in Boston in the 1950s when I was a kid and I had to go into the office on Saturdays as that was how she brought us up. I have worked on engines and I did the obligatory gas-pump jockey bit as a teen. In other words, I've been around cars and the industry for a long time.

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