By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Just a few square inches of rubber at each of your car’s four corners is all that keeps you on the road. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Several thousand pounds of steel, plastic, glass and you — all kept under control by four small “contact patches” of tire tread.
Now imagine what happens when you drive over slick, ice-covered surfaces. On a curve, the car will try to keep on going straight ahead — and right off the road. Inertia keeps it going in that direction — and the lack of traction prevents you from being able to make corrections.
If you are on a straight stretch that’s covered with black ice and you tap the brakes (even if you have ABS) sudden weight transfer could cause the car to go into a sidewise slide. Often, the only thing that will stop it is an impact with some fixed object, like a tree or telephone pole.
It’s best to avoid driving at all in icy conditions, of course — but sometimes we can’t help being caught in a storm. Here are some practical driving tips to help avoid getting into an accident when the weather turns wicked:
* Reduce speed —
Even if you have four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, your vehicle’s ability to stop/slow down on ice and snow is no better than any other car’s. And you’ll need more room to come to a stop on wet/snow/ice-slicked roads than you would on dry pavement. By dropping your speed, you also reduce the amount of time/space you’ll need to safely come to a complete stop — and increase your odds of avoiding an accident.
* Increase your following distance —
In winter weather, double or triple the distance between yourself and the vehicle ahead of you. This will give you more time to slow down — and more time to consider worst-case alternatives (such as steering into a grassy field rather than piling into the car ahead).
* Avoid oversteering and abrupt, jerky movements of the wheel —
Change directions gradually and smoothly. Abrupt lane changes or sudden steering inputs can throw the weight of the car around and that could be just enough to overcome whatever little traction you’ve got — resulting in a spin-out or slide. Try to anticipate the need to slow down for for traffic signals, make turns and so on.
* Braking —
If the car has ABS, push the brake pedal to the floor as hard as you can. The system will keep the wheels from locking up and you will still be able to steer the car. If you own an older car without ABS, you should depress the brake pedal gradually and smoothly, but not all the way down. If you sense the wheels about to lock up, back off the pedal to avoid putting the car into a skid. The goal is to “threshold brake” — which means simply applying maximum pedal effort just short of lock-up.
* Controlling speed on slick surfaces –
If you have a manual transmission, downshifting to a lower gear uses the “engine braking effect” to keep speed under control on downhill stretches without over-using the brakes — which may cause them to heat up excessively and fade when you really need them. If your car has an automatic transmission, you can achieve the same effect by turning off the overdrive (usually there is an “O/D” button on the shifter) or putting the selector lever into the next lowest gear down from “Drive.”
* Use momentum to your advantage –
In other words, keep moving — if it is safe to do so. While it’s important to obey traffic laws, sometimes common sense overrides rigid adherence to rules. For example, if you are driving in a snowstorm and there’s a stop sign at the top of a hill with several cars coming up behind you, it’s not necessarily the smart move to come to a complete stop and risk either getting stuck or, worse, sliding back down the hill and hitting the cars behind you. Assuming you can clearly see the intersection and there are no other cars attempting to come through, a “rolling stop” in such circumstances might be safer than risking the loss of your traction and forward momentum.
* How to deal with slides and skids –
When a rear wheel drive car loses traction, typically the back end of the car will start to “fishtail.” If this happens, gently back off the gas and attempt to regain control by steering in the direction of the skid. Often, just backing off the gas will cause the car to stop fishtailing — and the tail will snap back into line. Avoid the temptation to hit the brakes in a skid; this will often only make the situation worse. Try to gently steer your way out of it — and try not to panic. Many late model cars have electronic stability control technology that will greatly assist you here.
Front-wheel-drive cars are usually better in the snow and ice than rear-drive cars because all the weight of the engine and transmission are on top of the drive wheels. This gives better traction and makes the car less apt to spin its wheels than a rear-drive car. All-wheel-drive is even better in this respect.
*Make sure you have decent tires —
“Mussolinis” (bald tires) or high performance summer tires (which are almost as bad as baldies in snow and ice) should be avoided. All-season tires are ok, but for maximum grip (if you live in a part of the country with serious winter weather), the small hassle of switching over to specific-use snow tires for winter driving is a smart move. A set of four snow tires is a lot cheaper than a totaled car.
* If the worst happens –
If you find yourself in a situation such as a skid that you can’t control or steer out of, try to plan your impact to minimize the damage to yourself, others and your vehicle (in that order). For example, you may have enough time and enough control left to choose what you will hit. If possible, go for something with “give” — such as a snowbank or grassy ditch. If possible, try to hit it sideways, rather than head-on, as this will lessen the severity of the impact. You can use small trees and bushes to slow your vehicle down, too.