Car Life

WINTER

HOW THE EXPERTS REDUCE THE RISKS OF WINTER MOTORING IN CANADA

Wayne Lilley October 6 1980
Car Life

WINTER

HOW THE EXPERTS REDUCE THE RISKS OF WINTER MOTORING IN CANADA

Wayne Lilley October 6 1980

WINTER

HOW THE EXPERTS REDUCE THE RISKS OF WINTER MOTORING IN CANADA

Wayne Lilley

If it's true that nothing embarrasses bureaucrats so much as controversy, there must have been some red faces around Toronto's Queen's Park, seat of the Ontario government, when the 1980 version of The Driver's Handbook was first issued. A sticker hastily pasted on the cover advised readers posessing less than the complex, demanding skill required to pilot a car to regard the section of the book including winter driving techniques as a guideline only.

As disquieting as the warning might be for drivers—who, after all, have the right to expect that others on the road can cope with all driving conditions however Utopian such expectations might be—-it underlines the fact that even experts aren't in accord when it comes to handling every conceivable road condition. Unfortunately, though, every conceivable road condition perhaps best describes four-season driving in Canada.

Ontario suggests the fastest method of stopping on dry roads from speeds up to 100 km /hr is to hit the brake pedal hard, locking up all four wheels. The same advice is proffered for emergency stops on wet roads—probably the most frequent of all winter driving conditions for most drivers—from speeds up to 80 km/hr.

Among the professionals who take issue with that advice, however, is Craig Fisher, a former racing driver. As chief instructor at the BP Skid Control Course in Oakville, Ontario, Fisher probably sees as many skids in a year as most drivers are likely to in a lifetime. He is unconvinced that locking up a car's wheels is good advice under any circumstances.

"There are just too many variables that come into play," he claims. "Most roads are crowned, for instance, so when the wheels are locked and the car begins to skid, it will slide down the crown rather than go straight. You might be able to prove that you can stop a car faster by locking the wheels—and I don't believe that either—but you would still need some special situations to keep the sliding car in a straight line. That theory assumes that friction between the tire and the road is going to be equal, but it seldom is, and as a result the car won't end up going in a straight line. On a highway like Toronto's Don Valley

Parkway or the Queen Elizabeth Way, trying that method could have frightening results.”

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So what is the answer? Fisher, like Chuck Hancock, a veteran instructor with the Canadian armed forces before joining the Ontario Safety League 12 years ago to instruct instructors and professional tractor trailer drivers, is a proponent of the Defensive Driving System, devised by H.L. Smith, an American. A basic principle of defensive driving, they say, is maintaining a space cushion around you at all times to reduce the chance of collision. Provided that insulation space is kept, in theory the driver should be able to steer around problems.

But to drive out of trouble, all four wheels must be kept rolling since a skid removes all chance of steering the vehicle, says Hancock. "The idea is to brake as firmly as possible without locking the wheels so the friction of the brakes works on the wheels rather than allowing the friction between the road and the tires to do the stopping.” Hancock concedes, however, that gentle application of the brakes in an emergency situation is an acquired skill.

"If you drive as smoothly as possible with speed under control, and keep in mind that traction is cricital, it becomes rapidly apparent that the safest way around a comer in slippery conditions is to do all the braking necessary before turning and all the turning required before accelerating,” he says.

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Although manufacturers trumpet the better traction that the growing number of front-wheel drive cars offer, Craig Fisher is doubtful that most drivers will notice an appreciable difference under normal conditions compared with rear-wheel drive cars. But he encourages his students and all drivers to understand the capabilities of the cars they drive.

"At the end of the skid course in which we use our cars, we try and have students take their own cars out to practise what they learned.”

As annoying to the pros as to motorists caught at the bottom of a hill on a wintery day is the driver who insists on using the best part of 200 horsepower, transferred to the drive wheels via the accelerator, to overcome traction problems. Bmte force, says Fisher, is never the answer and a much better approach is putting the car in the highest gear at which it will still pull away and then

feathering the accelerator. Just as hard braking creates ice under the tires, so does spinning the tires.

Not all cars are designed with such techniques in mind, however. Some automatic transmissions cannot be set in a higher gear until a certain speed is achieved. Drivers in such cases should pull away as slowly as first gear will allow. But drivers who find one wheel spinning through loss of traction may find judicious application of the emergency brake-the hand-operated type work best-to stop the spinning wheel while still allowing the wheel with traction to grip the road.

"We've been recommending that practice for years,” says Fisher, "but owners should read their manuals to find out if the emergency brake controls the drive wheels. If it doesn't, the technique won't work.”

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Chuck Hancock maintains that a good driver will be aware of road conditions at all times, but while that seems to be stating the obvious-as indeed do most winter driving tips-he points out that appearance can be deceiving. "In late fall and early spring especially, a road that looks wet might be covered by a thin layer of black ice. From time to time, it's a good idea to wait until the road is clear-and I can't emphasize that enough-and then slow down and gently touch the brakes to determine how much traction you have. When you know that, you can adjust your speed and following distance accordingly.

But perhaps the best preventive measure of all, whatever the season, is maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. According to the principles of defensive driving which most provincial transportation ministries adhere to, as a minimum you should maintain a two-second timed interval between your car and the one you're following. That is, you should allow two seconds from the time the vehicle in front of you passes a point before you pass the same point.

' "The nice thing about the timed interval idea rather than the number-of-feet per kilometre-per-hour which the provinces used to teach,” says Hancock, is that it's easy to figure and adjust to fit conditions. If you're driving on slippery roads, you just double the timed interval to provide a greater space cushion.”

Naturally,all the driving advice in the world is useless if the car youare driving is ill prepared for winter. A first step

in that direction should be a thorough understanding of the owner's manual. Snow tires-with studs where provincial law allows and icy conditions are common-are advisable, but mixing radial ply tires with bias-ply snow tires (which are generally cheaper) is distinctly false economy. In the first place, radiais and bias-plies shouldn't be mixed on the car under any circumstances because of their different handling properties. Furthermore, some manufacturers, particularly those of front-wheel drive models, often maintain that snow tires on only the front or drive wheels are ill advised and if installed at all, should be put on all four wheels.

As a compromise, many motorists have turned to the growing number of all-season radial ply tires which work fine provided the same isn’t expected of them as would be from good snow tires. Whatever type is selected, the important point is that there be sufficient tread to grip-

In fact, making sure everything on the car works as it is supposed to should become a habit, especially in winter, according to Staff Sergeant Hugh Gallagher who is in charge of instructing Royal Canadian Mounted Police trainees at the force's Regina academy. "One of the things we insist on is that the driver of a patrol car check to make sure every light is working, tire pressures are correct to specifications and that all windows are clear and defrosters working,” says Gallagher. ' 'I'd say that officers see about every driving condition imaginable in every comer of the country and there just isn't room for errors.”

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Gallagher points to lights as a special area of concernas much to be seen as to see with. Craig Fisher, in fact, points out that driving with lights on all the time isn't a bad idea from a visibility point of view. The danger of forgetting to turn them off when leaving the car, which would quickly drain a battery in winter, could be overcome by having a mechanic wire the lights to the ignition so they go out automatically when the car is turned off.

The list of standard preparations for winter driving, of course, could go on practically forever—things like antifreeze and gas line de-icer. A word about the last item to keep the fuel system operable. A litre of methyl hydrate costing about $2 will perform just as well as 115 ml of the commercially packaged stuff—which is esentially methyl hydrate—that costs about $1 for enough to treat one 10-gallon tankful of

gas.