From technique to tires and traction, experts answer some of your winter-driving questions.

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Are you ready to face another winter-driving season? DirtFish Rally School senior instructors are here to provide answers to some of the most common questions regarding winter driving.

Are there a lot of differences with driving techniques when driving in snow, ice or rain?

Lead Instructor Nate Tennis says:

The best analogy is to think about confronting these conditions as if you were walking on a sidewalk — if you walk in the rain you have less traction than if you’re walking on a dry sidewalk. If there’s snow, you have even less traction and it’s easier to slip and fall. With ice, you’re almost guaranteed to slip! If a person were out running, to avoid slipping they’d (hopefully) run more slowly in the rain, slow down to a walk in the snow, and tiptoe carefully on the ice.

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This is the same in your car, except that you’re going 60 miles per hour… so it’s easy to see why accidents can happen. Snow, ice and rain all limit the amount of traction a tire has on the road. Regardless of which slippery condition a tire is in, the driver will not be able to stop, turn or accelerate as well as if the road were dry. So the same care used to walk down a sidewalk should be applied to driving in these conditions.

What do you think the three most important elements of safe winter driving are and why?

Slow down

First and foremost, slow down. Slippery conditions increase the amount of time and distance it takes to stop and/or slow down. There is less available traction for your car to use to stop, turn and accelerate, so any inputs while on snow and/or ice will take much longer than even in the rain. Slowing down allows time to process situations, reduces a vehicle’s tendency to continue straight and limits how long it takes to stop.

Leave extra room

Driving in slippery conditions is unpredictable. If we know it takes longer to slow down, then we also know it doesn’t leave a lot of room to stop or turn. If we approach an intersection or follow a car at the same distance that we would in the dry, we don’t leave ourselves the option of slowing, stopping or turning if the unexpected happens.

Don’t panic

For most drivers, if a slide happens it’s often an unpleasant experience (unless you’re at DirtFish — we love it!). This causes a situation of either “freezing” or overreacting, and unfortunately, neither typically ends well. By remaining calm, a driver is able to think more clearly and find ways to fix the situation rather than make things worse. But ultimately the best situation is to not get into trouble in the first place by following the first two recommendations.

What is the difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive?

Both of these terms refer to a vehicle that has the ability to have all four wheels powered by the engine. When vehicles with four driven wheels were less common, the two terms were used frequently to mean the same thing. What has become the industry standard is that a four-wheel drive vehicle can be switched out of four driven wheels to only two (like a truck), while all-wheel drive is a vehicle where the engine permanently drives all four wheels, and it is not possible for the driver to select only two driven wheels. So trucks can or have to be put into four-wheel drive with a switch, button or lever, while in an all-wheel drive vehicle, the engine is always driving all four wheels.

Someone told me to put sandbags in the trunk of my Toyota Camry to add weight. What would that do?

That would make the trunk heavy… and that’s about it. There are two possibilities: the first is a “technique” from the days when the majority of cars were rear-wheel drive, and adding weight in the trunk gave more traction over the rear tires. A Toyota Camry has front-wheel drive, so this doesn’t help. If anything, one could argue that sand in the trunk could remove weight (and therefore traction) from the front of the car and actually reduce driving capabilities in slippery conditions. If this was a rear-wheel drive car, it could theoretically help since it does add more weight over the tires that power the car. It still isn’t as good as having snow tires or driving safely in general.

Do I really need different tires for the winter months? Why won’t my all seasons work?

Senior Instructor Mitch Williams says:

Think of tires as shoes. In the wintertime, you will probably want to wear boots because they provide you with the best traction for the conditions thanks to different materials and more surface area. All-season tires are more like a sneaker than a boot. They’ll work both in the dry as well as the snow, but it’s not the best option and will not perform as well overall. The small price you’ll pay for having a few winter tires around is far better than the large price tag for car damage or potentially even a medical bill.

What do the buttons “traction control” or “stability control” actually do to my car?

Traction control helps manage the vehicle traction during acceleration or when climbing hills. The computers in the car do this by sensing and limiting the amount of power going to the tires that are slipping on the surface; the wheel will stop and restart rotation to help the tire regain traction. Stability control helps maintain directional stability when cornering or braking on inconsistent surfaces. This works similarly to traction control except it will also apply the brakes where the computer thinks it is needed, based on the direction you are attempting to go and the direction your car is actually going.

What would be a good checklist for when the weather starts getting cold?

Senior Instructor Ted Anthony Jr. says:

My go-to checklist includes the following: swap to winter tires (if you’re not planning on this step, definitely check and reset your tire pressures; they will drop when the weather gets cold); oil change; check vital engine fluids; add winter formula windshield washer fluid (has more alcohol content so it won’t freeze); make sure the ice scraper is in vehicle; and I always like to have a spare sweatshirt, jacket and gloves just in case. A good pair of boots isn’t a bad idea either.

I have seen so many accidents or cars off the road when there isn’t even that much snow or slush on the roads. How can it happen so fast? What are they doing wrong so I know what to do right?

The anatomy of each collision is different, but there are usually a few things that are present at each one. Most often, the drivers just aren’t paying close enough attention. Either they are distracted, or they haven’t noticed that the road conditions have changed and haven’t adjusted their driving accordingly. When it’s cold and potentially snowy, drivers need to be much more attentive. You need to watch the road for indications of traction (Is the road frosty? Is the car in front of you leaving tire marks on the road? If it’s snowy, can you drive in the tracks of the car in front of you? Sometimes, it can be better to avoid those tracks, as the compacted snow and ice has less traction than snow that hasn’t been driven on.) Also, sometimes we just need to slow down and keep our eyes ahead. If you’re paying attention to all of those little details, you’re far less likely to end up losing control of your car.

What does antilock brakes mean? What does it do?

Antilock brakes (or ABS) is a computer-controlled system that automatically prevents the tires from locking when the brakes are applied firmly (or when the road is slippery). The purpose is to allow the tires to rotate and give the driver the ability to brake and steer simultaneously. When confronted with an acute situation, most drivers overreact (often by braking too hard), and the ABS helps prevent many collisions caused by this.

If the back end of my car starts skidding on a slippery surface, what direction do I turn the wheel to try and get back in control?

The idea is to keep the front end of the car ahead of the rear. So If you think of “keeping the car in line” that can help. For example, if you are turning left, and the rear of the car “steps out”, momentum will bring the rear out to the right. So the driver needs to “counter-steer” to the right to straighten the car out. Gently applying the gas will also aid in the recovery of the slide as it transfers weight to the rear of the car, providing more grip.

Do you want to feel more confident behind the wheel this winter? Book your class at DirtFish now! Do you have a question we didn’t answer? Send it to info@dirtfish.com. We will get it answered for you!