What experts wish you knew about winter driving.
I’ve always considered myself a good driver. I grew up with a dad who had us driving the tractor lawnmower at age eight and learning to drive a stick at 16, and then showed us the finer points of donuts in the icy church parking lot after Mass. His best trick, much to my mother’s chagrin, was to speed down our snow-packed road and throw on the parking break to execute a tight fishtail and turn into our driveway. He never missed.
So an invite to winter driving school? That I couldn’t turn down. Bridgestone gathered a group of journalists at Bridgestone Driving School in Steamboat Springs to talk about tire technology and safety. Although I was already driving on a set of Blizzaks, most of the other drivers were believers that AWD and an all-season tire will get you through most conditions.
I spent the day piloting cars pellmell through a rancher’s field that had been flooded with water and plowed into a racetrack of sheer ice. We steered SUVs and sedans around tight corners and up steep inclines as instructors coached us via radio. I drove hours and hours on the ice as a blizzard set in and we all went snow blind. And I found just how perilous the winter driving is in these parts—not the least of which is because we think we know how to do it and what we need to make it safe. And most of us would be wrong.
Each year 7,130 people in the U.S. die in winter weather–related crashes. But there are tactics and gear that give drivers an advantage. Justin Hayes is the winter tire product manager at Bridgestone, and he sees people like me all the time, the ones who feel pretty good about their AWD and their skills. So I asked him to to dish on what the public doesn’t know that puts us at risk.
What’s the biggest misconception drivers have about all-season tires?
While all season tires are designed with both winter and summer in mind, they do not offer maximum performance in either season. The rubber compound in winter tires is specially designed to stay more flexible in cold temperatures than standard all-season tires or summer tires. Because of this trait, winter tires offer better grip in a variety of winter driving conditions, including snow, slush, ice and even dry roads.
Winter tires also feature a special tread pattern design that packs snow into the tire’s tread to generate snow-on-snow traction that gives your tires additional grip.
What’s the biggest misconception about what drivers should do when their cars start to slide?
Braking. Braking is a driver’s first instinct in an emergency situation, but braking as the car starts to slide can make matters worse. Instead, the driver should calmly turn the wheels in the direction the car is sliding and avoid overcorrecting.
What’s the most important technological breakthrough in the industry in the last few years?
The biggest advances in winter tire technology in recent years have to do with ice performance. Everyone knows ice is slippery. This is because there’s often a very thin layer of water on top of the ice that makes it slick. Next-generation winter tires in the Bridgestone Blizzak line feature a multi-cell compound that acts like a sponge, sucking water off the ice, allowing the tire to have better contact with the ice, creating more traction. Bite particles are also added, acting as microscopic studs that deliver road grip and improve braking on ice.
If you were to head out to an icy lot and teach your own kids three winter driving safety skills, what would those be?
1. First and foremost, make the switch to winter tires.
During winter, conditions vary and they can change very quickly. Winter tires are designed to give drivers the most grip in all of those winter driving conditions. Also, make sure you check your air pressure as the colder weather hits. Every time the temperature drops 10 degrees, you lose one psi of pressure in your tire.
2. Don’t multitask.
When roads are slippery, it’s important to use all of the available grip to perform one — and only one—action at time. For example, you don’t want to brake while also trying to steer through a sharp turn. If you need to apply the brakes, do so while the vehicle is traveling down a straight stretch of road. Along those same lines, you don’t want to accelerate while going through a turn. Wait until you are able to straighten the steering wheel at the exit of the turn.
3. Driving safely doesn’t necessarily mean driving super slowly.
Too little speed can be just as dangerous as too much speed in winter conditions. If the driver can’t make it up a hill or keep up with traffic, he or she puts other drivers in more danger.
What are some of your best tricks and tips for drivers to maintain control?
Be sure to leave extra room between you and the car in front of you. In normal conditions, you should maintain a following distance of three seconds between you and another car. On winter roads, increase that to a full eight to 10 seconds.
A few additional driving tips include: during a turn, the driver should follow the inside of the turn with his/her eyes to avoid understeering. Also, get to know the car and its brakes before driving in winter conditions. In an emergency situation, it is most effective to press and hold the brake pedal in a car with ABS (anti-lock brakes), but for a car with non-ABS brakes, the pumping technique is most effective.
I drove home after driving school that night up Rabbit Ears Pass. The spring blizzard of the morning had done a freeze-thaw dance, creating black ice and heaps of deep and grabby wet snow. There were no other cars. Until I reached the top; then I saw them, one after the other. Cars off the road—one every couple hundred yards, police lights a smear of blue and red through the melting flakes on my windshield.
As I crawled by each accident, I felt the wheels grab and grab again beneath me. With each slip and grab, each shimmy, I thought, oh, this is where it all goes wrong.
But I made it down, toward the valley and bare roads of Kremmling. I believe having the right tires for the conditions helped get me safely back home that night. That, and white knuckling the wheel and repeating what I learned just that morning. Look in the direction you want the car to go. Maintain distance. Anticipate. Don’t brake and turn at the same time. Breathe.
Am I a believer? Yes, and with no apologies. Those skills and tires likely saved me from an accident on the road that night.
So what can you do? Gear up. Get the right tires for where you live and drive. Check them often. If you opt not to drive on winter tires, know your car’s limits. Take a driving class. And practice, so you can learn how your car responds. That empty parking lot? Looks just right for a couple of donuts.