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Driving On Thin Ice

by Marcia Schonberg


The temperature plunges and the forecasters predict flurries. Winter's just around the corner. If you're dreading the frigid months ahead,  traveling on slippery roadways and worrying about morning drives to work you're like the rest of us. Your encounters probably won't be as slick as the ice rink I drove on, but if you follow these experts' techniques for driving under these conditions, you'll maneuver through winter more safely. 

I met with driving professionals including racecar driver and certified auto mechanic Pat Lazzaro,  and Mark Cox, director of Bridgestone Winter Driving School, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada when I signed up to try my skill on the most perilous winter condition: ice. Along with colleagues, I was asked to evaluate and compare the differences between winter and all-season tires on dry pavement and on a simulated winter surface. Our road was the most slippery ice imaginable and deemed the fastest in the world if you ask the international speed skaters who compete on the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary.

I was confident about my driving skills when friends and coworkers quizzed me before leaving. Why you? What makes you an expert? My college-age son rolled his eyes and laughed aloud as he imagined me driving on the ice skating rink. Why me? As a working female, the automotive industry is, interested in cornering our market segment as well as assisting older women with updated techniques to make our journeys safer. 

 Some reasons for my inclusion in the Winter Driving School course were that I drive thousands of more miles annually than the average motorist of either gender, I'm not a professional, and I've been driving for, gulp, 38 years to be nearly exact. And my goal is just like yours - to get from here to there and back safely.

In addition, winter driving in our Midwest region can and does change without a moment's notice. Not knowing if weather conditions will change while I'm en route or will delay my departure play havoc with stress levels during this unpredictable season. I was secretly hoping to learn some tricks to give me confidence and reduce my white-knuckled anxiety behind the wheel. So I defended Bridgestone's invitation with my inquisitors and headed toward the airport.

Calgary's a charming city, one that I enjoy visiting and as a travel writer, a place I could easily explore and tell readers about. That would have been an easy assignment. Learning about tread construction, multi-cell compounds and how they all relate to the laws of physics was more challenging and so were the driving tests. 

My task was to focus on the way the Bridgestone tires performed during three components of the driving course: acceleration, braking and steering. I found, in retrospect, that the most difficult part of the test was maintaining the required speed which felt too fast and aggressive to me during some trials. "Take as many laps as you need to feel comfortable," my instructor, Tanner Foust, had told me. "We don't want you to be concerned that you're driving on the fastest ice in the world," he added, smiling. Funny he should mention that, just after I inched my way to the car, taking tiny baby steps. I drove cautiously and too slowly.  After several tries, though, my confidence grew and I was able to follow the directions set forth by Foust, my personal trainer for the day. 

My fellow journalists and I partnered up in teams of two to compare three popular types of vehicles and the two kinds of tires. Using an indoor track, we drove front wheel minivans, all wheel sport utility vehicles and luxury sedans equipped with traction control. One set of vehicles was equipped with premium all-season tires (all terrain, in the case of the SUV) superior to standard original equipment. The other vehicles were riding on Bridgestone's latest Blizzak models. And all had the ABS braking system to be employed during each icy stop.

I drove each car, not knowing told how it was equipped before I slid behind the wheel. Foust, an instructor at Bridgestone Winter Driving School based in Steamboat, Colorado, accompanied me and as an added bonus, provided hands-on tips and driving strategies his regular students have paid for.

Turning my first corner, I knocked down several pylons, with one actually lodging between the tire and bumper. "That's a scenario we call 'understeering,' when the front tires break loose' - you were going through a turn a little faster than the tires and the grip would allow," he explained, describing my first steering error. The tendency is to turn the wheel more, even though the tires aren't complying and you're still going straight. The difficult fix for that is to actually unwind the wheel toward straight until you regain grip on the tires and then continue the turn." The winter tires on my next try enabled me to make the turns without difficulty and I was on my way to becoming a believer in these techniques. 

Next we tested the braking process and the ABS (Automatic Braking System) system almost immediately sensed the stopping difficulties and took over. But what is it that should I be doing?  "In an emergency situation, the proper technique is to keep the pressure on the brake peddle letting it do its job," Foust said. The bottom of the tire uses static friction to grip the surface. When sliding, you're losing friction and it will take much longer to stop. ABS uses sensors to sense wheel lockup. Later, while testing the luxury model, I learned that drivers of cars equipped with traction control gained the additional bonus of having the sensors identify wheel spin and then automatically change performance electronically to control each wheel and the tires. 

While discovering for myself how much better winter tires performed and the sense of confidence I gained, I learned something about wet and dry snow and ice. Ice closest to freezing temperatures is the most dangerous, either as the temperature is dropping or when it is beginning to melt.  Foust explained that the water on top acts as a lubricant and doesn't allow the tire's rubber compound to react with the ice directly.

On the outdoor track, the mission was to try to notice the difference between winter and all season treads on dry pavement. Nuances between the two were so subtle that in most cases my opinions were really hunches, not firm facts. Professionals instruct consumers who purchase winter treads to 'share the wear' by installing winter tires in late fall and removing them during early spring to extend the wear on both sets. Generally, expect three seasons of wear, but depending on the conditions, you may get four or five years from the winter treads. Check various manufacturers' recommendations against the type of driving and conditions you usually encounter to assess your individual needs. 

Buying tires isn't like buying shoes - we can't try them on nor do many of us desire a collection. And unlike grocery store shopping, there are no free samples. I was lucky because I was able to try both varieties under the exactly the same conditions and I could measure the differences during adverse conditions. That part was easy because there is a great deal of difference between all-season and winter tires. 

Consult your local dealer for additional information or check online at or, an Internet retailer, with good prices. They are running the results of their independent winter tire tests at www.tirerack/winter/wintertesting.html.

The pros offer readers more tips for safe winter driving

"About 37 percent of women cite traffic as a source of stress in the lives, with 19 percent saying they feel unsafe in their vehicles sometimes," Pat Lazzaro said. "Compound that stress and uncertainty with the unpredictability of snow and ice and we have winter drivers potentially at risk," she said. Their tips will get you ready for winter while helping to lower your stress levels, whether you're male or female.

  • If you can move a nighttime trip to daylight hours, do so. Not only is visibility better, but if your vehicle is stalled, you're more likely to receive prompt assistance.
  • Before you shift into gear, plan your best route, avoiding hills, high congestion areas and bridges when possible.
  • Be alert to other drivers. Put extra distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you. If someone is too close behind you, don't speed up; slow down and let him or her pass you.
  • In many situations better grip or traction can be gained by placing the outside wheels toward the shoulder of the road, out of the center ruts. The difference in traction can unbalance the car during transition from rut to shoulder - be alert.
  • In everyday driving, keep a smooth, progressive and light touch on the brakes, even in a car equipped with ABS (Anti Lock Braking System). In an emergency in an ABS-equipped car, press the pedal HARD and hold it down. In a car with ABS, it's possible to steer around many obstacles while breaking. Think of ABS as "Allows you to Brake and Steer."
  • Keep hands at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock position on the steering wheel and steer smoothly in the direction that you want to go. Avoid the "hand over hand technique." It may sound overly simple, but using this shuffle technique can help you in a skid.
  • While manual transmissions may provide greater control to assist with braking, be careful when using downshifting as a way to slow the vehicle. Gear changes should always be made smoothly in the straightway before the corner. Abrupt gear changes may upset a vehicle's balance and cause a skid to occur, especially while cornering.
As a mechanic, Pat suggests making sure your car is ready for winter. Here are her additional tips:
  • Check windshield wiper blades - in some areas, snow blades are an effective alternative to conventional wiper blades.
  • Have your mechanic test the antifreeze coolant for the correct level of protection in your driving area.
  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Decreasing tire pressure to drive on snow can reduce the gripping action of tires because the tread will not meet the road surface as it was designed to do. Over-inflation has the same affect.
  • If you live where snow and ice are certainties, use snow and ice tires. Their unique tread compound and design provides enhanced traction and road-gripping capabilities.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full. The extra volume can help reduce moisture problems within your fuel system. It also adds helpful weight to your vehicle.
  • Before you leave, scrape the ice and snow from every window and exterior mirrors. Don't just scrape a small patch on the windshield. And don't forget to scrape headlights and brake lights.
  • Try to remove excess ice and snow from your shoes before getting into the car. Believe it or not, you'll reduce moisture build-up that causes your windows to fog. To reduce the problem, also turn the air recirculation to OFF; bringing drier, fresh air in. Run your air conditioner for a few minutes. It will act as a dehumidifier.
  • Remember to always use safety belts, both lap and shoulder. Adjust headrests, making sure the back of the head rests squarely in the center of the headrest. Rear end collisions are common in winter driving and a properly adjusted headrest can prevent, or reduce, neck injuries.
  • Don't use a cellular phone when driving on ice or snow - even if you have a hands free model, you need to concentrate on driving, not on a telephone conversation.
  • If you do have trouble, run the engine briefly not continuously to operate the heater. Carbon monoxide can accumulate more easily in a non-moving vehicle. 

Stock your vehicle with simple emergency equipment, should you get stalled or have an accident. Consider keeping these items in your car:

1. A blanket or extra clothes
2. Candle and matches
3. Snacks
4. Beverages (never alcohol)
5. Flares
6. CB radio or cellular phone
7. Long jumper cables
8. Small shovel
9. A flashlight
10. A windshield scraper
11. A tow rope
12. A bag of sand or cat litter for traction

Jill Angelini, an Ohio-based certified mechanic and service station owner stresses the importance of pre-season maintenance, before "the snow flies."    Angelini advises car owners to include these checkpoints when scheduling a winter inspection:

  • Flush the radiator if needed and make sure to test the temperature, adding new anti-freeze in a 50-50 ratio.
  • Definitely test the battery - cold weather will trigger problems.
  • If you aren't installing winter tires, make sure to rotate all-season tires, placing the best two upfront on front-wheel drive vehicles.
  • Change to winter windshield blades. "A lot of people switch over because the winter ones are insulated to reduce ice and snow build-up," she explains.
  • An engine tune-up to help prevent flooding during cold conditions.


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