Knowledge & Wisdom: How to Drive in Winter
Tim O’Neil is trying to save the world, one driver at a time. For the past 27 years, this longtime rally driver has traveled the country, teaching the dos and don’ts that come with making the road a better, safer place. Since 2000, most of that work has come from his Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center, a sprawling, woodsy home base in Dalton, New Hampshire. It’s a magnet not just for budding rally-car competitors but also for folks who want to brush up on their driving techniques, especially in winter. “Summertime makes us numb,” O’Neil says. “We get used to the sunny days and dry roads, so that even really good drivers are petrified when that first snow hits.” For more about Team O’Neil and its courses, visit: team-oneil.com
Good winter driving, O’Neil says, begins with good preparation. He advises that every vehicle be equipped with two survival kits: one for clothing (extra jackets, gloves, hats) and another for equipment (jumper cables, flat-tire kits, flashlights, extra cell-phone battery, windshield-washer fluid). “You find some old Yankees around here and you open up the backs of their cars and you’ll find they have their kits,” he says.
Scrape off the summer rust by finding an open space and getting to know your car again. Slam on the brakes to find out where the antilock braking system (ABS) kicks in and whether your brakes in general need an adjustment. Does the car pull to one side? Also, try out your car’s different driving modes, such as “sport” and “winter,” and reacquaint yourself with how they affect the car’s handling.
Three simple words: Know your surroundings. If it’s late in the day and a warmer afternoon has given way to cooler temperatures, ice may form. North sides of hills can be slicker than south sides. Bridges freeze faster than roads. And winter driving means you double the number of car lengths between you and the vehicle ahead. “When people aren’t paying attention, that’s often when they have accidents,” O’Neil notes. “They’re not monitoring the conditions.”
Four Over Two
When it comes to tires, it’s about quality and quantity. O’Neil advises running four snows, not just two, especially on front-wheel-drive vehicles. “If you come around a corner, the front will grip much better than the back and you may lose control,” he says. Unsure what to buy? Find a trusted mechanic, O’Neil says, and ask what he runs on his cars: “When I had my shop, people used to come from all over to get the tires I put on my car.”
Because snow tires are made with a softer rubber, the best ones don’t necessarily offer a long estimated-mileage life. “They’re designed to go over the snow and compress it to make it grippy,” O’Neil says. A good winter tire with lots of life on it will leave a trail of crisp tread marks. If the trail looks like something smooth went over the snow, it’s time to go shopping.
Eyes on the Prize
If you get locked in a skid, O’Neil says, the number-one thing to do is to keep your eyes on where you want to go. “You’re more likely to steer in that direction,” he explains. It may sound counter-intuitive, but in situations where the back of the vehicle is sliding around, turn the car in the direction in which you want to head, let off the brake, and accelerate gently: “The front will pull you out of the skid and help put weight on the back tires, giving them better grip.”
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