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Driving in the snow & ice

Posted on: 17th December, 2019

This post is nothing to do with computers at all! But, it is still hopefully informative and useful for anyone driving in the icy conditions at this time of year.

Well before I changed career direction into the wonderful world of IT, I was lucky enough to work at 2 Winter Olympics, in the Transport Dept for CBS TV. Obviously we were driving in snow and ice virtually all of the time. Hopefully some of those experiences will prove useful in this blog.

At any time there are 4 essential elements to safe driving, but these are so much more important in the ice and snow.

  1. Alertness – In the cold weather you may have the car heater on full. This can make you drowsy, especially on a long journey, so have fresh air coming into the car too.
  2. Awareness – Be aware, at all times, of the current road and traffic conditions. Use your mirrors, look up at the sky, look down at the road, keep looking all around.
  3. Anticipation – What is happening ahead, what is about to happen, what could happen? You should know all of these things in order to correctly anticipate potential hazards.
  4. Attitude – The most critical component of safe, defensive driving.

Driving in snow and ice is little different to the way that we should drive at all times! Except that the adverse weather means that we must be so much more careful when on the road. Do everything much more slowly and with greater consideration. Look ahead as far as possible, so that you know there is a bend coming up and you can adjust your speed well in time; or there’s a sleigh parked in the middle of the road that you have to avoid, etc.

And use your dipped beam headlights. Headlights are much more for you to be seen, rather than for you to see. You will, of course, have cleared the snow and ice from all of your windows, but have the other drivers? Are their windows misted over? And don’t forget to clear snow & ice from both headlights and brake lights.

Think of what we do when driving. We change speed (acceleration or braking), we change gear, (up or down), and we change direction. It is quite rare that we drive in perfect equilibrium, with none of these things altering, for any length of time.

In an ideal world, whenever we are driving, it would prove useful to only change any one of these three states, (speed, gear, steering), at any one time. This isn’t so important when driving normally, but it is the most vital aspect of driving in snow and ice.

If we try to change speed too quickly when cornering, (whether accelerating or braking), a skid may result. Equally, if we try to change gear in the middle of a corner, or brake when changing gear, things could get tasty.

How to avoid these issues? Practise this when you are driving in good conditions: As you change speed, gear or direction talk to yourself, saying “speed, speed, speed”, or “gear, gear, gear”, or “steer, steer, steer”. It may sound silly, but you can only say, and therefore do, one thing at a time.

It’s an unusual way to drive in normal conditions, but get used to it and it could be a lifesaver in the snow and ice.

Skids happen when you aren’t paying attention to the conditions and you try to change too many things at once. Usually because you’re trying to change speed and direction at the same time. You’ve realised that you’re going too fast for the sharp bend so you brake harshly in the middle of the corner. And you skid.

If you had planned for the corner well in advance, and so you were travelling at the right speed for the corner before you ever got to it, you could concentrate just on steering around it. Don’t speed up until you’re going in a straight line again. (“speed, speed, speed” OR “gear, gear, gear” OR “steer, steer, steer”!)

And if you do skid? Do nothing. Literally. It doesn’t matter if it is a front wheel, back wheel or 4 wheel skid. Would you know the difference anyway? Would you care?

At the time you’re much too worried about sliding off the road to worry about what type of skid you’re in! So take your feet off all the pedals and your hands, (briefly), off the steering wheel. The car will try to go in a straight line and it will want to slow down. Good!

Then you need to steer, very gently, in the direction that you’d prefer to be travelling in, whilst equally carefully braking. Steer or brake too hard and the skid will get worse, brake too softly and the skid won’t stop.

If you understand “cadence braking” you can try gently pumping the brake pedal. If you feel the car juddering as you brake then this is the ABS, (anti-lock braking system), doing the job for you. It can be scary if you’re not expecting it, but just let it do it’s thing. Don’t try cadence braking if the car is already doing so.

Ice forms first on bridges, or where the road is in shade, or in the bottom of a dip. But, due to your enhanced Anticipation and improved Attitude, as well as greater Alertness and better Awareness, you’re not too worried about the icy conditions any more!