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BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

Driving tips for a snowpocalypse

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

(Andrew Errington/Getty Images)

(Andrew Errington/Getty Images)

Navigating snowy and icy roads requires a set of skills that can only be learned “on the job”.

But in the fraught moment of a slide, a driver may do the wrong thing – or too little of the right thing – in an attempt to snap the vehicle back into dialogue with the road. The proliferation of all-wheel drive has only instilled a false confidence in some drivers; absent proper footwear and sound driver judgment, even the burliest of SUVs can become an elephant on ice skates.

With much of eastern North America bogged down in blizzard management, Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone tire company’s Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, offered tips and techniques for maintaining control of a sliding vehicle – and how to avoid a slide altogether. (Hint: it’s not just about slowing down.)

  • Drive within the conditions’ limits – A driver’s ability to react effectively to a slide will always be contingent on the state of roads, the volume of traffic and the kind of vehicle being driven. Cox notes that only experience teaches a driver where each inflection point resides, and each must be respected.
  • Don't panic – Too often, the factor that determines whether a slide precipitates a collision is the driver’s ability to calmly call on the skills required of the situation. Of course, those skills must be learned and practiced. In addition to purpose-designed driving academies, Cox cites empty snowy parking lots as good practice grounds.
  • Use one, and only one, input at a time – “There are three controls to the car,” Cox says. “Brake, steering and throttle. You brake only in a straight line, not in a curve. You only steer when you’re off the brake. And you only apply throttle when you’re back travelling on a straight trajectory."
  • Look where you want to go – When the rear end breaks loose, a driver should look where the car ought to be travelling and calmly steer in that direction. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether a car is equipped with front-, rear- or all-wheel drive, Cox says. “Good technique will always cover all three driving platforms.”

And finally, a word of advice from your editors at BBC Autos, particularly for drivers with automatic transmissions.

When trying to dislodge a vehicle from an icy parking spot, avoid the temptation to spin your tires. Take the requisite time – whether one minute or 60 – to clear slippery obstacles as best as you can, or however long it takes for the tires to find enough traction to spring the car loose. Excessive (and ultimately impotent) wheel-spin creates immense load on a transmission, which can lead to bushing leaks and any number of expensive-to-repair maladies. Baby the throttle this winter, and your car will baby you.