The best advice for driving in heavy snow is to avoid it. Skiers and riders, however, are often tempted to hit snow-covered roads by the lure of a big powder day. Knowing a few basic principles can at least reduce the risk.
In judging the risk, the outdoor temperature and timing can play a big role. “The general rule of thumb is that as the temperature gets closer to freezing (32 F), either coming up or going down, that’s when the road is going to become more slippery, because there’s more water available and that acts as a lubricant on top of the snow or ice,” said Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“In general, fresh snow has better traction than snow that’s been driven over many times,” he added. “The snow crystals are still sharp and still have the spikes on them and once they’ve been driven over more and more, they are more like a grain of sand and it doesn’t have those sharp edges that help provide traction.”
BREAKING IN HEAVY SNOW
Stopping distance obviously increases on a snow-covered road. Bill Van Tassel, the driver training operation manager at AAA, suggests that the usual recommended spacing of three to four seconds from a car ahead should increase to at least five to six seconds on a snowy road.
Four-wheel or all-wheel-drive vehicles are not excluded from this advice. “Four-wheel or all-wheel-drive vehicles give you a lot more ability to accelerate in slippery conditions, but it doesn’t do a darn thing for your stopping ability,” cautioned Mike Calkins, manager of approved auto repair at AAA.
“You get these people who get in this car and say ‘this is great, I can get right up to 40 miles-an-hour’ and they forget that yeah they can accelerate that quick, but they still can’t stop any faster than any other vehicle.”
ACCELERATING IN HEAVY SNOW
Speed should also be adjusted. “Let’s say your tire traction drops by one-half in snow or icy conditions, you’ll want to drop your speed by about that same amount, so you’re giving yourself that same traction and safety margin that you had in dry conditions,” Van Tassel said.
Compounding the challenge of the snow, the mountain roads that skiers and snowboarders must travel are often full of treacherous traverses. Therefore, the right technique in navigating turns is essential.
“One of the most common mistakes we see is people trying to do too much with the tiny little bit of grip that’s available,” Cox said. “When you have a limited amount of grip, you want to do one thing at a time. You either want to brake, steer or accelerate, not combining any two of those.”
MANAGING A SKID
If a skid does occur, a calm, smooth response can often help the tires regain traction. The traditional adage was “steer into a skid,” but with the back half of the car going one way and the front the other, that advice proved confusing—especially in a sudden emergency.
“Over the years, we’ve evolved our message a little bit so if there’s only one message we have time to get across, it’s to continue to look and steer where you want to go, simple as that,” Van Tassel said. “We’re trusting the brain and the hands and feet to do the right thing. As you keep your eyes on the road where you want to go, your hands and feet will kind of do their thing even if you’re sliding. Focus on your target and you’ll have the best chance.”
Students at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School learn more advanced techniques that distinguish between front-wheel and rear-wheel skids. “The proper correction for a front-wheel skid is to remember that you shouldn’t be accelerating and cornering at the same time, so if you are, lift your foot off the accelerator and that helps create a weight transfer toward the front of the car by deceleration,” Cox says. The added weight on the front tires increases the chances for better traction.
For rear-wheel skids, the opposite is true. “You can add a little acceleration, not to add speed to a bad situation, but to create a weight transfer toward the rear of the vehicle to help regain the grip,” Cox advised. “Unloading the rear wheels is the mistake that caused you to lose traction, so one of the quickest ways to reverse that is to create that weight transfer back toward the rear.”