My "Icy" Introduction
October 31, 2011
I saw an exit ahead and, off to the right, the lights of a gas station. I took the off ramp, which fed onto a street headed toward the town. It had snowed that day, but I was supremely confident that my all-season radials could handle the snow and slush. Growing up in Southern California, I'd never actually driven on snow, so I was clueless about what it would do to my traction. I was almost to the intersection with the town's main street when the light turned red. Crap -- I could see a hotel just across the street! I wasn't in the mood for delays. I thought about pulling a "California stop" (slowing down, checking both ways for cops and easing through). But, wouldn't you know it, there was a cop car slowly approaching the intersection from the left.
I pushed in the clutch and hit the brakes. I was going a bit fast, but I trusted my tires to get a grip so I wouldn't get a ticket. Imagine my surprise as I slid into the intersection, slowly spinning counterclockwise until my rear tires bumped against the far curb. I'd barely felt the "thump" when I noticed the police cruiser through my windshield. It was hard not to notice it, with its lights flashing. "Great," I thought -- between this ticket and the price of a cheap hotel room, I could've stayed in the Hilton back in Oklahoma City. So much for my blind faith in all-season radials!
Since then, I've lived in Germany, Missouri and New Mexico and learned a lot more about driving in the snow. I've learned all-season radials are not the one-size-fits-all best answer for every driving condition. During winter, purposefully designed snow tires and, when and where legal, studded tires offer greatly enhanced traction compared to all-season radials (see the information box, 'Digging' It -- Snow Tires). And, as I learned during winters in Kansas City, Mo., chains can be your best option for traction in the snow and ice. Tire chains can be mounted on your regular all-season radials, saving you the cost of buying an extra set of tires. Of course, with speeds limited to about 30 mph, you won't be cruising on the interstate. However, you will greatly improve your chances of reaching your destination. Whatever else, it's vital to treat ice- and snow-covered roads with respect and drive accordingly.
So you won't have to follow my less-than-pristine example of how not to drive in the snow, check out these tips from the American Automobile Association:
• Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly is the best method for maintaining traction and avoiding skids. Also, gradually slow down for a stoplight. Remember, it takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
• Drive slowly. Everything, whether it's accelerating, stopping or turning, takes longer on snow-covered roads than on dry pavement. Increase your following distance to eight to 10 seconds to provide more room to stop.
• Know your brakes. Whether or not you have antilock brakes, the best way to stop is threshold braking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply a firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
• Don't stop if you can avoid it. It's a lot harder to overcome the inertia of a stopped vehicle than one that is still slowly rolling. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
• Don't power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed downhill as slowly as possible.
• Don't stop while going uphill. There's nothing worse than trying to get moving uphill on an icy road.
• If you really don't have to go out, don't. Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can. Don't tempt fate: If you don't have somewhere you have to be, watch the snow from indoors.
w/ info box below
'Digging' It -- Snow Tires
As reassuring as it may be to have all-season radials on your vehicle, these popular tires are not necessarily the best choice in severe winter conditions. True snow tires use a softer rubber compound and have very deep treads to help them "bite" into the snow. This improves their traction and helps keep the vehicle from sliding, especially during braking. You can identify these tires by the mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall. For really difficult situations, there are tires equipped with metal studs to give you improved traction on snow and ice.
However, there are some downsides to these tires. Because of their softer rubber compound, snow tires wear down much more quickly than all-season radials when driven on dry roads. Also, studded tires can damage road surfaces and, as a result, are not legal in all states. Typically, those states that allow studded tires limit their use to between certain winter dates. If you are uncertain about the studded tires laws for your state, visit the American Automobile Association website at http://drivinglaws.aaa.com/ and click on your state on the U.S. map. As you scroll down through the driving laws, you will see if studded tires are allowed and the approved dates for their use. It's also important to know that when you use snow or studded tires, you need to put them on all four wheels of your vehicle.