Top 3 Winter Driving Tips
As the first big storms of the year chill the country we notice an increase in questions about winter driving. Some drivers are terrified of bad weather, but we all still have places to go. I enjoy the challenge of a snowy highway, and having driven AWD, FWD, and RWD through harsh winters, I’ve learned a few things. Every big snow-storm offers new lessons and more experience, but here are the three that make the biggest difference.
TIRES - Your All-Season tires aren’t good enough. If winter temperatures in your area linger below 40 degrees, dedicated winter tires are necessary. The rubber compound is softer and gives more grip even on dry pavement. Hi-performance summer tires turn to slick bricks in cold weather, and all-seasons are a one-size-fits-all shirt; you’re covered, but not very well.
It’s easy to justify all-season tires because of the extra expense and storage hassle of two sets. Luckily, tire storage is becoming very common, and cheap winter tires are still better than expensive all seasons. (In fact, I did multiple storms with cheap Chinese tire brand “Triangle” and often passed AWDs with all-seaons). There’s a fundamentally different tire compound and tread pattern on winter tires. They aren’t restricted to snow anymore, so consider your weather and decide from there. We’ve discussed the value of tires many times on our Podcast, but it is easily overlooked an understated. Our personal recommendations for winter tires (especially in snowy climates) are Bridgestone’s excellent Blizzak series, Finland made Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 (that’s not a typo), and Michelin’s X-Ice line.
VISION - From sports, to driving, to walking, our body coordinates to follow where our eyes lead. In the case of winter emergencies and loss of grip it’s extremely difficult to turn our eyes from the impending guardrail or telephone pole. However, when things get out of control the only way to end up where you want to be is to look toward your goal. Driver’s of all skill levels will subconsciously correct a car toward their focus. In those times I’ve found myself sliding it takes genuine effort to look at my preferred path, but it has helped me every time.
Once, while cresting a snowy hill in my AWD Saab 92x (the Saabaru, as we lovingly refer to it), the back got light and began to slide right, toward the ditch. I repeated “look at the road, look at the road” in my mind as it kept coming around. After what seemed like an eternity of counter steering and staring at my lane, the back eventually corrected and dropped in line. If I’d looked at the ditch, I’m certain I would have ended up there. Looking where you want to be is no guarantee, but it gives you a chance at pulling off a miracle.
SMOOTH MOVES - Sudden movements cause an abrupt weight shift which can exceed the low grip levels of winter driving. The best way to avoid surprises is to make all adjustments in speed and steering with a steady, gradual change. This relates directly to vision once again, but if you’re looking where you want to go now you just have to look farther ahead. Seeing and anticipating what’s coming before it reaches your car will help you make adjustments without upsetting your grip.
On a snowy or icy road, even my low-powered FRS can unstick its tires with one mash of the throttle. While this can be fun in an empty parking lot, it’s one quick move away from a spin if used in the wrong moment. AWD doesn’t solve this problem either as my wife recently pulled away from a stop in her Cayenne and as she turned with throttle the car kept turning and spun on ice. Gradual inputs matter more than anything and if you can limit your changes to one thing at a time (just turning, or just accelerating) you give your tires a better chance of keeping grip.
Interestingly, all of these driving precepts apply for high-speed track driving at the limits of a car. The difference between a dry racetrack and an icy backroad is the speed where these problems reveal themselves. Pay attention to the information from your car, and respond as soon as any grip is lost.
This leads me to the most common recommendation for winter driving: slow-down. But each person’s comfort with speed is different. A slow driver making a sudden unanticipated move is more likely to lose control than a faster car who saw the problem forming. Lots of constant tiny corrections of the wheel generally indicate a driver looking too close to the front of their car. In a snow storm, even a simple lane change can create problems. Keep your eyes up and watch what’s happening to cars far ahead of you. Shifting from one lane to another with a decisive but gradual move keeps the car under control and creates the best chance of finding grip (you remembered your winter tires, right?). When grip is reduced, a smooth adjustment with plenty of time is always safer, no matter what the speed.
Be careful out there.