Monday, February 2, 2015

A Girl's Guide to Winter Driving

So we got a major snowfall here in upstate NY today (hey, it's winter; that sort of thing happens around here), and people freaked out and were all over the place in ditches, or they called in to work saying they couldn't make it out of their driveway.  Okay I will admit the roads were bad, but not that bad.

I drove to work and back today without incident.  It took 40 minutes as opposed to the typical 25 (it's about 19 miles from home to work).  My commute takes me over a series of back roads, main roads as well as urban side streets.  There's various intersections with stop signs, traffic lights or none of the above.  My drive takes me through three counties, all of which have various priorities on how they maintain their roads.  And I did just fine.

Before you think to yourself, "Oh, well she's got to have a four-wheel drive vehicle!" let me just shut that down right now.  I drive a 2000 Toyota Corolla.  It's front-wheel drive with automatic transmission, a four-cylinder engine and no anti-lock breaks.  I've been driving it for thirteen years.

Now it is true I wasn't always a great winter driver, in fact I had quite the track record of sending the car into a 180 degree spin at least once a year (thank heavens no one was ever hurt in any of those incidences including the car!).  A couple years ago though I decided to put a stop to that dangerous "habit" on the assumption that my luck would run out some day and something very bad would happen eventually.  Since then I've (if I do say so myself) become quite a good driver on bad roads and I'd like to share with you my simple and easy-to-implement tips for how to drive in the winter.

1) Take it slow
I really wish I didn't have to include this, but I apparently have to.  I've heard too many stories of people who wound up in the ditch and when recounting their story later it was obvious they were going way too fast for the conditions.  Look people the speed limit on any given road is only applicable under optimal driving condistions.  Snow falling from the sky at an inch per hour does not constitute "optimal driving conditions" under any stretch of the imagination.

Do not drive at the speed you want to, expect to, or usually do.  Drive only as fast as you can safely stop quickly if you needed to, or to regain control of the vehicle if you start to slide (more on that in the next point).

But on the other side, don't drive ten miles an hour either when your car is perfectly capable of going 30.  You'll piss off the other drivers stacking up behind you and risk being the focal point of an accident when they irately try passing you.  I understand pulling onto the shoulder to let people by can be impractical when the roads are bad, but you've got to make a fair compromise here for the safety and sanity of your fellow travelers.

2) Expect to slide around
When I first moved out to the country I was paranoid about hitting a deer.  To me it simply seemed inevitable: there are deer out in the woods, one will get hit some day.
I knew I had to change my mindset otherwise I would be guaranteeing that I'd whack a wandering ruminant some day (you know, the whole "what you resist persists" mentality); so I had to change my thinking to avoid this outcome.

What I changed it to was "It's guaranteed I'll see deer.  I certainly don't need to ever have to hit one though".  And it works.  Now whenever I see white-tails grazing alongside the road I'm not terrified that one will inevitably leap out in front of me.  I slow down and gauge whether they're interested in seeing what the chicken thought was so great about the other side of the road.

The same holds true for slipping and sliding on slick roads.  Separate the notion that a slide will equal a crash.  It doesn't have to.  The car will slide.  That's okay.  Don't freak out.  If you're going slow enough (see above), all you should have to do is take your foot off the gas and let the tires find traction again.  You might have to down-shift (see next point), but you won't freak out because you know you don't have to soar into a tailspin or wind up in the ditch.

3) Learn how to down-shift
Most cars are automatic these days and the average person doesn't even know how to drive a standard transmission vehicle.  Those who do still drive standards though swear by them because they do better in the snow.

Why? you might ask.
Because people who drive standard know how to use their gear shifter to maximize traction and you can too! (Yes, even with an automatic).

Most people put their car in Drive or O/D (Overdrive; can also be denoted by a "D" with a circle around it) and never touch the gear shifter again until they reach their destination or need to parallel park; but there's a whole bunch of other gears available on the automation transmission gear shifter that you're missing out on!

There's the option to get out of Overdrive for instance; on my car it's a button on the side of the gear shifter, but on others it's a separate gear.  This is a slightly lower gear than what you want for cruising speed as it's not as fuel efficient, but it gives you better traction.

The "2" and "1" are the equivalent to the standard gears.  1st gear is for starting from a dead stop.  You've got a lot of torque in this gear, but you can only go about 10 to maybe 15 miles an hour before the engines winds up too high (you'll hear it, believe me).  2nd though is a great gear if you can't go faster than 30 miles an hour.  This is also an excellent gear to drop down to if you're starting to slide to help the tires grip the road again.  Don't stay in 2nd gear though if you can go much faster than 30 as (again) you'll hear the engine wind up and it's not good for either the engine or your fuel economy.

The general rule of thumb I follow:
If I can't drive faster than 45 miles per hour - take off the Overdrive
30 mph or less = use 2nd gear

I rarely use 1st, mostly because my car doesn't drop into it easily anymore, but it's good if you just need a good hard push from the engine to get going from a stop.

4) Get the freaking snow tires
I used to only drive on all-seasons all year round, feeling it was stupid to spend the money on two whole sets of tires that you have to change out every six months.
I can now attest though that the cost of switching them out (and potentially storing them) is well worth the cost.

You can go studded if you like, but I personally don't; feeling that traction is lost on dry roads.  To each their own though, go with what makes you more comfortable.

Snow tires don't make you invincible though; you still need to adher to safe and sane driving practices.  What they do give you though is much better traction in snowy/slushy conditions (and yes, studs will help you on ice).  Climbing hills when the roads are greasy is significantly easier with snow tires as well.

If you can afford a whole second set of rims (called "wheels" these days I guess), all the better.  Changing out your warm-weather tires with your snows as the seasons change though does not damage the rims, so don't worry about that (if you were).

So there's my advice for winter driving and it works very well for me.
How about you?
Any tips/tricks you've picked up through the years that's improved your winter driving?  Share your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. The only piece of advice I'd offer is that you may have to turn traction control if you find yourself slowing while trying to accelerate uphill. Traction control's job is to help you gain traction while driving. Traction control doesn't always recognize that you're driving in snow.