Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

5 tips for safe winter driving

Give your brain time to get a grip on icy roads

Every year, as fall is overwhelmed – or obliterated, if you prefer – by winter, a phrase pops up in the media: “seasonal amnesia.” Invariably, it accompanies reports of the dozens if not hundreds of collisions involving drivers who have been caught off guard by the return of ice and snow to the roads.

There may be something to that forgetfulness. In 2014, a Wisconsin city newspaper, helped by a local psychology professor, looked into the phenomenon in their snowy midwestern state.

A virtual reality experiment tricked the teacher’s students into thinking their classroom was off kilter. After they’d adjusted to moving around in the altered environment, they took off their headsets. Then they stumbled around the world they’d only briefly left behind.

Conclusion: the brain and body need time to adjust to sudden changes. Five or six months of easy driving aren’t easy to unlearn upon waking up to a frozen commute.

Maybe we can help with the transition. Here are five refreshers from Automotive Service Technician instructor Dan Brochu (Bachelor of Business Administration ’16, Automotive Service Technician ’81) for navigating a familiar but altered environment.

1. Stop and think about brakes

brake pads, brakes, wheel rotor, vehicleBefore stopping becomes a challenge, get your brake pads checked. Or see for yourself.

The brake caliper is like a hand curled around the rotor, that metal disk just behind the wheel. The brake pads sit between the caliper and the rotor, and are made of a metallic fibre. If they’re not at least three millimetres (1/16 inch) thick, get them replaced.

2. Light up your life

winter driving headlightsWith limited daylight, you’ll often be driving in the dark, so check your head- and tail lights. Consider investing in high-quality, long-lasting bulbs, says Brochu.

“I always buy the premium. If you compromise quality you can’t expect to get the same life out of it.”

3. Best rubber for the road

winter tires

Below about -7 C, “all-season tires aren’t sufficient,” says Brochu. They harden up in the cold, reducing traction. That means trouble stopping, no matter how powerful a vehicle you drive.

“If you drive a four-by-four, you can accelerate like crazy but it’s your ability to stop that is the issue.”

4. Safe driving practices

couple in car driving in winter

Brochu’s dad used to teach his kids winter driving skills by putting the car into a spin and showing them how to get out of it. But Brochu would rather the rest of us not end up in that situation in the first place.

The big secret: back off. Avoid a hard brake by putting distance between you and the vehicle ahead. If you’re driving 60 kilometres per hour, for example, allow four to five car lengths, says Brochu.

And don’t be in a rush. “If you have to get somewhere at a certain time, leave earlier.”

5. Dealing with trouble

winter tow truck

If Brochu has hit the ditch – and he has – we all might at some point. This is why he packs a safety kit, which includes a blanket and candle for warmth, non-perishable (and un-freezable) food, and a flashlight with a beacon bright enough to be seen from the road. A sturdy shovel might get you out and running again.

If you have no choice but to wait for help (consider an AMA membership, says Brochu) sit tight. “Don’t stand on the highway. You’re liable to get hit.”

Just stay safe and don’t be hard on yourself when or if winter gets the better of your vehicle. We may find ourselves shocked each year by winter but, even if memories of summer are to blame, who would trade them?


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