What a car looks like on an average Canadian winter morning
What a car looks like on an average Canadian winter morning
What a car looks like on an average Canadian winter morning. Click image to enlarge

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Canada Safety Council
Driving on snow and ice
Traction 2006
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By Paul Williams

Here’s how a car looks on most winter mornings in the average Canadian’s driveway. What’s the first task?

Well, “get the door unlocked” comes quickly to mind, assuming it’s not frozen shut. Fortunately, many cars are equipped with remote keyless entry, which is a huge advance over the old keylock systems (the door may still stick, but at least you won’t break the key trying to unlock it).

Either way, the first thing to do is get into the car, start the engine, turn on the rear defrost, turn on the front defrost, and grab the scraper (you have a scraper, yes?). Oh, and make sure the air conditioning is turned on if your vehicle is so equipped (it’s okay if the system is set to heat) as this will dehumidify the interior and prevent fogging on the windows.

The next thing is to get out and remove the snow from all windows (that includes the rear window), and clean the snow off the mirrors, the hood and the front and rear lights. Now at least you can see out of the car, and be seen by others.

If you live in Quebec, you’ll be riding on winter tires, where their fitment is mandatory. But you should be on winter tires in snowy/icy conditions no matter where you live in Canada. True, your vehicle may have traction control, electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes, but that’s even more reason to use winter tires (electronic systems can’t give your tires more traction…).

One more thing about winter tires: they do help get you started but they really shine at helping you to stop. A recent Autos winter driving event demonstrated that a vehicle fitted with winter tires was able to stop one-to-two car lengths sooner than a vehicle with “all-season” tires. That’s the difference between rear-ending the car in front of you, or not.

Once you’re on the road, driving safely in winter boils down to a single key task: keep a lot of space between you and everything else. That means in front of you, behind you, beside you. And the main technique for achieving this task is to do everything more slowly than you would on dry pavement.

Start slowly from a standstill; gently applying the accelerator and building speed; Begin stopping much earlier than you would on dry pavement, by taking your foot off the gas and gently braking well in advance of the place you wish to stop; Decelerate before you make a turn, slowing the vehicle so that it won’t slide sideways or fishtail.

If the vehicle in front of you begins to slow down, you keep well back so that even if they make an emergency stop, you’ll still have plenty of room (in other words, it won’t be an emergency for you).

And don’t let people tailgate your vehicle. Move over and let them by. Who cares if they’re going faster than you? Control your space.

Watch out for black ice. It’s hard to see this stuff, but it often forms on bridges, so that’s something to look out for; if you find yourself on black ice, just coast through; no sudden manoeuvres.

In fact, that’s the best thing to remember when driving in winter: no sudden manoeuvres. Plan ahead and pay attention to surrounding conditions so that you won’t have to stop, turn or accelerate abruptly .

However, it is a good idea to get a sense of what your car will do when you apply the brakes hard, or turn quickly. One method is to visit a mall parking lot early on a Sunday morning, find an area without parked cars and people, and try the brakes and steering on a slippery surface. Don’t go too fast (you don’t want to hit a lamp post…), but it’s good to know how your car will behave in unusual conditions.

A better approach is to sign up for some winter driving instruction. Here in Ottawa, the Motorsports Club of Ottawa runs one-day winter driving programs on their closed circuit. It’s inexpensive and perfectly safe; you use your own car, and you’ll be a better winter driver after taking the course. Search online for a similar Winter Driving School in your area.

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