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Lessons for Life

Winter safety behind the wheel

When it comes to snow and ice, you can never be too safe. Check out our tips.

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

January 8, 2013

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Driving in the winter can be intimidating and dangerous. Are you ready to handle the roads in the slush and snow? According to Mark Cox, the director of Bridgestone's Winter Driving School, a few simple precautions and a little focus can keep you out of harm's way when you're behind the wheel in the winter.

"If you really think about it, driving is a sport," Cox said. "It requires physical dexterity, hand-eye coordination and some thought to be good at it. If you haven't driven in ice and snow in six or nine months, chances are your reflexes and your senses aren't as up to speed as they should be."

Cox said stopping in the snow takes "four to 10 times longer" than stopping in dry conditions.

"When you think of what's connecting your car to the road, you only have four contact patches the size of your hand that connect you with the ground," he said. "You want to have the most connection that you possibly can for the best performance and safety."

And while all-wheel drive can come in handy, Cox said, it isn't going to ensure your safety.

"All-wheel drive can cause a false sense of security," he said. "One of the biggest misconceptions is that front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive behave differently or handle differently — but if you're using proper technique, all of those vehicles can handle the same."

Here are some of Cox's tips for driving in winter conditions:

Avoid cruise control.

"If the traction is anything less than perfect on the road, you don't want to use cruise control," he said. "Even if there are just small patches of snow or ice, don't use cruise control. If you happen to hit one of those patches with even one wheel, and the power is still being applied, that can send the car into a skid — and the first thing you need to do to turn cruise control off is hit the brake — which is not something that is part of a skid correction. It makes a bad situation worse."

Don't pump your brakes.

Cox said pumping the brakes to gain control of your car is "an urban myth," and should only be used in older vehicles that aren't equipped with anti-lock braking systems (ABS).

"If you have a newer car that has ABS, you put your foot down on the brake and hold it down as hard as you can and allow the computer to pump the brakes for you," he said. "That's really all the ABS is — a computer pumping the brakes individually on each wheel instead of you as the driver doing it the old-school way on all four wheels at once."

Check your tires and windshield wipers.

Cox said snow tires can last "up to three seasons," and many people go years without changing their wipers or tires, which can put them in danger.

"When you are driving on snow, snow performance is determined by tread depth, so that is deeper in the new tires — and especially in snow tires," he said. "And people don't realize that it's not just the snow and ice that can impact the grip and traction on the road, but it's the winter temperatures too. When you can see your breath, you need to pay attention."

Don't brake when you start to skid.

"Typically, braking is not the answer to any type of skid," he said. "That's something people do when they panic. In many cases it will make it worse."

Cox said it's important to determine whether you are skidding from your front wheels, or losing the grip on the rear wheels before taking action.

"If you go into a corner a little too fast — say you turn the steering wheel and nothing happens — that is a front-wheel skid. Take your feet off of both pedals. You can also decrease the steering a little bit to allow the wheels to roll more freely and regain the grip, at which point you can steer through the corner. If you have a rear-wheel skid — where you start to spin out — you should point the front wheels in the direction you'd rather be going."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel