5 Winter Driving Essentials So You Don’t Crash

I took the concept of road testing self-care tips to the extreme and went, in January of 2015, to a frozen fairground in Minden, Ontario so I could learn to drive on ice.

Like many of you, I live in a part of the world that gets winter. The pristine blankets of fluffy white snow are lovely; the ice and slush and snow-covered roads, not so much.

I believe that self-care is about more than hot baths and jigsaw puzzles. It’s also about learning the skills you need so you can be confident that you’re able to handle a challenging situation and keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

Most people learn just enough about driving to get their license. That might be good enough if you have the freedom to follow the winter driving maxim, “If in doubt, don’t go out!

But for everyone who doesn’t have the luxury of leaving their car in the garage for four months of the year, a good winter driving course is a great investment. The one I attended was ILR Car Control School. It wasn’t cheap, but it was the best money I’ve ever spent on myself. I love spas so that’s saying a lot!

For those who can’t make it to a winter driving class, I’ve boiled what I learned down to five essentials.

1. If You Do Nothing Else Before Winter, Do This

Two days ago, I went to the dealership that services my SUV. They checked that the battery was fully charged, filled the radiator with winter antifreeze, and gave me no-freeze winter windshield washer fluid.

All very nice, but the single most important thing the mechanic did for me was to switch all four tires from all-seasons to winters. If you do nothing else, please get winter tires.

Ian Law, the owner of ILR Car Control School, says that the worst and cheapest winter tires give you 30% more grip on ice than do all-seasons. Good winter tires give 40% more grip. These statistics are impressive but for real impact, imagine yourself in the cars in this short video and imagine the orange pylons as a ditch or a pedestrian. Which car do you want to drive?winter tire tread impression in snow

2. Whatever Do You This Winter, Don’t Do This

If you are going into a skid, the very worst thing you can do is turn into it. If you see a car stuck in a ditch or an accident up ahead of you, the very worst thing you can do is look at the problem.

Staring at an obstacle results in ‘target fixation’ which is a fancy way of saying that you are going to head in that direction whether you want to or not.

Always look where you want to go.certificate for Karen Hume, winter driving school, issued by ILR

3. Read Situations Like the Pros

You already know that bridges tend to ice faster than roadways. Did you also know that when there’s a gap in a line of trees along the side of the road, that  section is more prone to ice? Or that if a road looks wet but there’s no spray coming off the tires of the cars in front of you, chances are good that you are driving on ice? Expert drivers pay attention to road conditions, and they look for escape routes just in case the vehicles in front of them go out of control.

Expert drivers also keep their vision high, a completely baffling concept until I went to car school. Keeping your vision high means keeping your eyes on the horizon–not the car immediately in front of you, but as far along the road as you can see. You need to see what’s happening further up the road so that you know what’s making the vehicles ahead of you apply their brakes. By keeping your eyes on the horizon, you can make small corrections to your driving. These small corrections are usually successful. If, instead, you watch the vehicle in front of you, you will make the same mistakes they do.

4. Chill Out

In bad driving conditions, you need to slow down and be smooth in every way possible. Slow down your rate of speed. The faster you are travelling, the more time and distance you will need to stop.

Slow down when going into a turn, begin turning slightly before you get to the corner, and apply gas and brakes smoothly.

And if you are driving at a slow rate of speed and you find yourself on ice, steer as smoothly as possible, ease smoothly off the gas pedal, and don’t touch the brakes.

One of the many surprising lessons from my day at car school was to not rely on my SUV’s all-wheel-drive to get me out of tough situations. As Ian explained it, “All-wheel-drive is not a safety feature. It doesn’t help you turn or brake. It’s a performance feature. It helps you accelerate faster. It lets you go into the ditch at higher speed.”

The experts at ILR recommend taking off your heavy winter coat before getting behind the wheel, and swapping your boots for thin-soled shoes. If you wear gloves, make sure they are leather because wool is too slippery for gripping the steering wheel. The idea is to be responsive to the machine that is underneath you. Avoid over-steering and slamming on the brakes.

5. Be Ready for Anything

Paying attention to the first four essentials will take care of you in most situations. Sometimes, however, you make a mistake and end up in a ditch on a lonely country road. Or perhaps someone in front of you  makes a mistake and you are forced to sit on a closed highway for several hours while emergency crews clean up the mess.

While a cell phone makes it easy to call for help (especially if you’ve remembered to keep a phone adapter or charger in your car), you may still have to wait quite a long time before that help arrives. It is always worthwhile to carry a winter survival kit. Here’s what is in mine:

My Winter Survival Kit

  • Calorie-dense food that won’t spoil–energy bars, nuts, granola, and dried fruit
  • Water – in small plastic bottles so they will thaw quickly
  • Blanket – Silver heat-reflecting blankets take little room; wool blankets are warm
  • Extra clothing and boots or shoes. Also an extra hat, gloves and scarf because heat is lost faster through your head and neck.
  • First aid kit–nothing elaborate, just bandages, antiseptic cream, and pain relievers
  • Candle in a can and matches–a good source of warmth, doesn’t require batteries, and staring at the flame will keep you sane if you are trapped for a long time
  • Wind-up flashlight–to inspect the car at night. An LED flashlight is also good. While the light isn’t as bright, it lasts longer than an incandescent flashlight.
  • Book and a deck of cards to stave off boredom

The final word goes to Ian Law –“A good driver in the worst car is safer than a bad driver in the best car. The driver is the ultimate safety feature.”

Did you learn anything new from this post? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  And please, drive safe.




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  1. As I get older my worries about winter driving are bigger. I have been thinking of taking some type of winter driving course lately. I’m a good driver, my confidence goes down in the winter. Karen, thank you for this post, you may have been reading my mind..

    1. I hear you, Donna. And seeing all of the crashes on the news every day through the winter doesn’t help. I can certainly recommend Ian Law’s course. All of the instructors are professional ice racing drivers and you get tons of one-on-one teaching in your own vehicle. Thanks so much for writing, Donna. Have a great day.

  2. I have taken the Young Drivers Course, when I got my licence, and have had experience with skids and bad weather when I lived out in the country when my boys were young. I can vouch for these courses because when you need to put these tips into practice; I am amazed at how quickly they flashed through my mind so I could take the correct action.

    We have winter tires on our car as well. We live out in the country and I could not fathom living out here in deep winter with just all season tires. I do not have the standard winter survival kit in the car. I do have a blanket and the usual jumper cables, spare fluids etc. I need to get a proper one together. Thankfully it is not winter quite yet. Thanks for the reminder Karen. =)

    1. You are quite welcome. Thank goodness it’s not winter yet, and we have a bit of time to get our acts together. The way the wind is howling outside my home tonight, I’m already imagining the swirling snow. Sigh. I’m not ready. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.

      1. Thank goodness; indeed. I think you are quite accurate in your prediction of a “bit” of time before the snow flies. I am right there with you. I am not ready either. On a side note I am NEVER ready for winter when the snow hits the ground to stay. This year is our first out here in the country and we want to be mega prepared for anything winter may have to throw our way. =)

  3. Karen – I was glad to see this post – it reminded me of what I have forgotten about that course! After 40 plus years of driving where there are palm trees and 12 month green lawns with nothing worse than the occasional hurricane, a sliding, slipping car was not on my radar. Returning to Canada, I had to learn all over again how to drive in snow and ice. The course in Minden was fantastic and I thank you for reminding me (again) of what I learned there.

    1. You are so welcome, Anna. I must confess though that the palm trees and twelve month green lawns are sounding awfully appealing on this gloomy gray day with snow swirling about. I’m glad you tossed in the reference to the occasional hurricane. It makes me feel much better about the sliding, slipping cars.

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