Originally published January 23, 2015
If car commercials are to be believed, all you need to survive adverse road conditions this season are winter tires and all-wheel drive. What they tend to ignore is the human element of the equation, the squishy meatbag at the helm of some two-ton hunk of metal barrelling down the highway at a velocity just shy of demerit-point territory. Sure, you know to go easy on the gas and to hit the brakes early and to steer into a skid, whatever that means. And you’ve been driving for years, what could possibly go wrong? Other than the heart palpitations when you see something on the road that might be melting snow or black ice, or when you don’t see anything at all but feel that lurch in your gut as tire noise disappears and all sensation of the road beneath you evaporates and you’re all too quickly sideways. What do you do in those situations? That’s where winter driving instruction comes in.
Winter driving courses are offered by a variety of organizers: automotive manufacturers, driving schools, local racing/motor clubs and individual instructors. Beyond the cost of participation, courses vary in duration, venue choice, and content. No two classes are exactly the same, but they should all hit the same fundamental points: basic winter driving techniques, braking, cornering, skid control and emergency evasion. Some people learn better through theory, while others prefer hands-on practice; you should ask about the length of in-class versus in-car instruction and pick the course that works best for your learning habits.
This category is dominated by the Germans. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche all offer winter driving courses (BMW does not have any sessions scheduled for Winter 2014/2015). The key difference here is that you’ll be driving vehicles supplied by the organizer, and the entire event is designed to focus on the fun and exhilaration of pushing performance vehicles to their limit on slippery surfaces, in addition to the standard curriculum of road safety.
This emphasis on exuberance is nowhere more evident than Porsche’s Camp4, which is held at Mecaglisse in Quebec and starts at the eyebrow-raising, wallet-emptying price of $5,195 plus tax. What you get is three nights at a luxury hotel and two full days of doing silly things in very expensive sports cars. It’s not so much a school as a weekend getaway. Return participants have the option of a more intense four-day experience in the form of the Camp4S and Camp4RS.
Coming back down from the stratosphere, you’ll find the Mercedes-Benz Winter Driving Academy, which is a full-day event held at various locations across Canada (sorry, Torontonians, the sessions in your area were two weeks ago). Participants can hop into most of the vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz family (including Smart cars). Beyond the intense driving instruction, it also presents an opportunity for drivers to try out modern stability control systems in a safe environment.
BMW doesn’t offer their Winter Driver Training course every year, so you’ll want to check their website or call them directly to confirm availability. Like Porsche, BMW holds their courses in Quebec, and like Mercedes-Benz, the cost of the day-long event is $795 plus tax. The common theme for manufacturer-run courses is the relatively short classroom time, with often just an hour of theory before an entire day of driving.