Living almost two hours away from my university, I'm finding myself on the road a lot lately. Tonight, Midwest got hit with the first serious snow of the season, and I counted six sets of blinking lights from the piles of snow, presumably with cars in them, way off the road. As anyone who grew up in Russia, there are two things I learned early on. How to drink vodka with bears, and how to drive bad cars in bad weather on bad roads with bad drivers. It is a well known fact that idiots and roads are two eternal problems of Russia, and while a steam roller can be used to fix one of them, what to do about roads, nobody knows.
Not all is up to the elements and hazards, however. There are several things one can do to significantly reduce the odds of becoming a spectator on the curb.
1. Stay at home. The simplest and most effective remedy to bad weather driving is not driving. If the weather is bad and you are not certain of your skill, condition, or vehicle, just stay home. Wherever you are planning to go, it's not as important as your life and life of others. At least, wait out the worst weather, and maybe take an opportunity to improve your skills before venturing on the road.
2. Practice winter driving. Find an empty parking lot with a fresh layer of snow. There is no better place to practice. Just make sure you are clear of light poles, cars, and people. You don't need to be going fast. At 20mph you can already experience most of the adverse effects on fresh snow. There are two things you should be learning foremost. Stopping and entering/exiting skids. If you have rear wheel drive, you can also try drifting. Learning to control drift will also help you better feel the onset of a skid.
3. Stopping. If you have ABS, just floor it. ABS will do the rest. ABS might not save you from a skid if you brake on a turn, though, so be aware. If you don't have ABS, avoid locking your wheels. There are two problems with locking your wheels. First, you don't brake as efficiently as you can. If the car in front of you does have ABS, you'll probably have to buy somebody a new bumper. Second problem is that once your wheels lock, you don't have any steering. The car will continue moving in the same direction it was moving when the wheels locked. And if the road turns and you keep going straight, that's a problem. The simplest way to avoid locking wheels is tapping the brake instead of just pressing it. That's basically what ABS does for you as well. Finally, if you are driving stick, if your wheels lock even briefly, your engine will stall, and your wheels will stay locked. In summary:
a) Avoid turning and braking at the same time. Your traction is limited, and you can usually avoid obstacles better doing just one or the other.
b) If you have no ABS, tap/pump your brakes. This takes practice, so go and practice.
c) If you are driving stick, always hit the clutch with the brake. Even in high gears.
4. Skids. First, identifying the skid. If your car is not pointing in direction you are moving, congratulations, you are in a skid. Ideally, you should learn to identify onset of a skid before it gets this bad. This is why it's important to practice entering skids in a controlled environment. Regardless of how you entered the skid, however, you always have to regain control before doing anything else, and there is precisely one way of regaining control from a skid. You have to get your front wheels rolling in direction of motion. That means steering into the skid. This is frequently the last thing you'll be tempted to do, but remember, you aren't going to be turning or braking while in an uncontrolled skid, so recover first, react second. This is where practice comes in. Once the front wheels are rolling, rear wheels will align themselves. It's possible that the rear wheels overshoot and you enter a secondary skid. If you are doing everything right, it should be smaller, however, and easier to recover from. Practice, practice, practice. This can save your life on the freeway, and not only on the snow. Once you recovered from the skid, take appropriate action, be it braking, turning, or continuing on.
5. Slow down. Well, obviously. But slowing down too much can also be hazardous. What's really important is driving at an appropriate speed, which you need to be able to gauge. To do this, you need to be able to feel how much traction you really have. The best way to do this is to rock the wheel slightly from side to side while going straight. On a straight line, even if your front wheels skid because of that, you'll immediately recover as your straighten the wheel. Try this when practicing so that you feel when the wheels just begin losing traction. If your front wheels are starting to slide at a small correction, you won't be able to make a turn. Slow down.
6. Signal. You should be signalling your turns all the time, but it's absolutely vital in bad weather. If you are bad at remembering to use turn signals, guess what? This is good time to work on good habits. Start signalling early, and watch traffic around you before and after you signal. Some people don't react adequately to someone in front of them changing lanes, trying to speed by or something stupid like that. On the dry road you may be able to react to that, but on the snow it's a collision risk, so check twice.
And turn signals aren't your only tool. Use brake lights too. I know, they go on by themselves, but by the time they go on, it might be too late for the guy tailgating you to stop. Tap the brakes a couple of times if you see you are going to slow down. I'm sure you've seen other people do this. It's a good habit.
7. Lights. If your windshield wipers are on, your lights should be also. Simple as. It's a law in many states, and a really good idea in all of them. Maybe you can see fine, but the truck behind you is not going to see your car in the snow if the lights aren't on.
8. Lane changes. Most of the cars I see off the freeway are in the middle. Most of these got there while trying to pass. This is already the most hazardous maneuver while on the freeway. During snow fall you add limited visibility, reduced traction, typically worse conditions on the left-most lane, and build-up of snow between lanes. It goes like this. You decide to pass a car. Step on the gas and turn the wheel. Acceleration takes up a chunk of your traction, reducing what's left to keep the car going straight. Left wheels enter the snow between lanes and the car jerks left. You fight it by turning right, which tends to coincide with right side wheels entering the snow causing too much turn to the right. The car is now in a skid pointing right and moving left across the lane. Now, even if you start recovering, you are entering the snow built up on the left shoulder, and from there, off to the curb you go. How do you avoid this? First, don't accelerate or brake while changing lanes. Reserve all traction for maintaining control. Second, do the lane change much slower. Signalling well in advance and double-checking your surroundings will put you in the right pace. When changing the lane gradually, you'll have to deal with wheels entering the snow build-up area one side at a time, allowing you to maintain control.
That's about all there is to the driving part. Besides that, pick your battles, and make sure your equipment is roadworthy. Most importantly, make sure you have weather-appropriate tires. Driving summer slicks on snow is not fun. Well, no, it is fun. Pushing the car out of the snow on the shoulder isn't. Take my word for it.
K^2Member Since 14 Apr 2004
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