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Driving (safely) home for Christmas

By: Viola Pruss

  |  Posted: Saturday, Dec 21, 2013 06:00 am

ICE AND SNOW – Maintaining a safe following distance is one way to stay safe while driving during winter conditions.
ICE AND SNOW – Maintaining a safe following distance is one way to stay safe while driving during winter conditions.
CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

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Canadian weather is full of surprises. In the span of an hour, the weather can change from a non-threatening, light drizzle, to a full-blown snowstorm. At best, it’s uncomfortable and stressful to drive on icy and snow-covered roads. At worst, it can be life threatening.

And while other drivers in your rearview mirror may be trying out for the next Fast and Furious production, local driving instructors caution to take it slow, stay calm, and be prepared – especially when heading home for the holidays.

Be prepared

“The first thing you want to do is make sure your vehicle is ready for winter,” said Ron Wilson, Alberta Motor Association manager of driver education.

“That your battery is fully charged, that the lights all work, and that the exhaust system is working and the windshield wipers are in good condition. If you haven’t had your car serviced, I would recommend doing that.”

A look out the window may promise blue skies and sunshine, but Wilson said it never hurts to check the weather forecast (the association offers road reports on its website). Drivers should also keep their tires inflated and brush all the snow off their car to prevent it from freezing onto the windshield, he said.

Take it slow

Once you hit the road, the best advice for driving on ice and snow is to steer carefully and without sudden movements, taking more time to accelerate and brake, and scanning the road ahead, said Sharon Burns, owner of St. Albert Driver Training.

“Scanning is probably the most important part of defensive driving, making sure you see what is coming up, what colour the next traffic light is and whether there are pedestrians,” she said.

Braking on ice or snow can take up to four times longer than on dry roads, she said. Instead of hitting the brake right away, drivers should slow their car by letting it coast first, she added.

“That’s why there are so many rear-enders because (drivers) don’t know when to stop,” she said. “On these roads you don’t ever want to have to be dependent on braking hard so you want to let the car slow naturally as much as you can.”

When no one is around and the roads are free, she also advises to brake hard to test the traction of the road. That way you know how your car will react when in traffic, she said.

When losing control …

But on icy roads even a light brake can often take your car on a carousel ride that, at best, leaves you stranded in the ditch, and at worst, has you hit another object.

If the car is fishtailing or starting to spin, drivers should take their foot off the gas pedal and resist the urge to brake until they can regain traction, said Burns.

Braking on a slippery road can lock your wheels but also put the car into more of a skid. If possible, drivers should put their car in neutral as this stops the transfer of power to the drive wheels, she said.

Wilson added that the best reaction to losing control of your car is to look and steer where you want to go.

“Your wheel will go where your eyes go, meaning if you stare at a tree or stare at a vehicle it means you will probably hit that,” he said. “And keep your hands on the wheel. If you don’t hold the steering wheel properly, it’ll be tougher to recover from the skid.”

And never use cruise control on winter roads, he added. The system may accelerate when the wheels hit a patch of ice, causing the car to lose traction, he said.

… stay calm!

Freezing to death in a stranded vehicle is unlikely, given that most major roadways are populated and roadside assistance is only a phone call away. But it has happened, warns Wilson, so drivers should keep their cellphone fully charged and always take a winter survival kit with them.

A kit should include everything from a set of warm clothes (including gloves, hats, scarves, socks and a blanket), as well as a small portable shovel and traction mats, a first aid kit, booster cables and waterproof matches and a survival candle.

Water, non-perishable food items (don’t forget the can opener) or granola bars can also keep you fed and healthy while stranded in the ditch on some lonely road, he added.

“But what else can help to keep you warm is always make sure you have a full tank of fuel,” he said. “(Drivers) may think they can get there on a half a tank of fuel but if you’re stuck that fuel can help to keep you warm if you shut your vehicle on and off every few minutes.”

If you do get stuck, the best thing to do is stay in the vehicle and stay calm, he added.

Idling the car every few minutes can keep you warm and won’t use up a lot of fuel. You should also make sure that the taillights are visible and the exhaust isn’t plugged, to avoid breathing in any carbon monoxide, he said.

“You’d be better to stay with the vehicle than walk around because they will find the vehicle before they find you,” he said. “Stay calm and crack your window a little. You want to try and stay awake.”

Take a lesson, teach a lesson

Taking it slow on icy roads not only keeps you safe but also those sharing the road with you, said Burns. Usually, driving with care forces others to get off the gas and keep their distance from your vehicle, she said.

For those who don’t feel safe driving in the winter, the Alberta Motor Association and many driving schools offer winter driving courses. And for newcomers, the winter season is always the best time to learn driving, said Burns.

“If you learn to drive on this then you develop really good driving strategies,” she said.


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