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By Jil McIntosh

A few years ago, the chief of the Ontario Provincial Police angered many drivers when he decreed that those who crashed in inclement weather would face charges. Vehicle operators wouldn’t get a pass by blaming road or weather conditions.

I further ruffled feathers by writing a column in a Toronto newspaper agreeing with him. The letters came in fast and furious. Readers cited such things as black ice, snowplow ridges, and one who inexplicably came up with the scenario of “pavement suddenly cracking ahead of the car.” All of them had one thing in common: it isn’t my fault.

Yes it is, according to Scott Marshall, the director of training for Young Drivers of Canada – the man who trains the trainers. “These are all driving errors,” he said. “People seem surprised and shocked that a wet, slippery road isn’t going to stop them as fast as a dry road. They fail to leave extra space in front while following, and they trust that the driver beside them won’t slide.

“Most drivers forget that in order to respond to a driver in front, we need time to see, to react, and then to stop. All year round, people make the mistake of allowing a couple of car lengths. It should be at least two seconds instead, and if the road is snow-covered, double that space. Also, never drive beside someone else. Don’t trust that the driver isn’t going to swerve when he hits ice. We call it ‘stagger formation.’ Always have a space beside you at all times.”

The first step is preparation, and that starts with what’s wrapped around your rims. Many drivers cite such things as anti-lock brakes or airbags as the car’s most important safety features, but the reality is that tires trump them all. Everything else, from stability control to seatbelts, is there to “mop up” after your tires have lost contact with the road.

If it’s at all possible, outfit your vehicle with winter tires. They’re not just “snow tires” anymore; their compounds are formulated to stay pliable and grippy on cold, dry roads. In contrast, all-season tires are a compromise between the softer compounds of winter tires, and those of summer tires, which must stay firm at hot temperatures. The grip of all-season tires weakens at temperatures of 7C and below.

When you’re swapping rubber, it’s essential to put winter tires on all four wheels. If you just put them on one axle, you’ll have better grip at one end of the vehicle, which could result in uneven starting or stopping. No matter what tires you use, be sure they have plenty of tread and are properly inflated.

Fluids are also part of preparation. Check everything, especially your washer fluid, and carry a spare jug of it. Heavy salt spray can make it impossible to see through your windshield, especially if you’re driving into the sun. Keep your gas tank topped up, too, so you don’t run out if you’re caught in a traffic snarl on the highway, or if your vehicle gets stuck.

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