As you may have noticed last week, it’s that time of year again — time to dig out the snow tires and chains, dig the ice scraper out of the trunk and put it in the map pocket, and pour the winter compound into the windshield washer reservoir. The weatherman tells us there may be more snow on the valley floor this coming week, so we all need to pay a little bit more attention to our driving. What separates racing drivers from the rest of us is their level of concentration.
The best thing you can do when roads are slick from snow and ice is stay home by the fire. But if you must venture out, the next best thing is to pay close attention to your driving. Don’t talk or text on your cell phone, don’t be munching on a Big Mac, lighting a cigarette, or messing with the CD changer. And most of all, don’t pound down a few rounds of holiday cheer before getting behind the wheel. Even if it doesn’t cause an accident, it could still get you onto Santa’s and the NHP’s “naughty” list.
So with that in mind, here are a few tips to stay safe on the road and make it through Christmas alive:
1) Buckle up! It plants you in the seat and gives you better control, and could save your life if another driver or an immovable object intrudes on your personal space.
2) Be smooth. The best racing drivers are those who are the smoothest and gentlest on the controls. Don’t yank the steering wheel, mash the gas or the brake, or anything that can upset the balance of the car. Ease into the throttle when starting from rest. Avoid using the brakes as much as possible, but when you have to use them, do it early and gently. Use small, slow movements on the steering wheel.
3) Maintain situational awareness. Be aware of what is happening ahead, behind, and around you. Anticipate. Leave more space between you and the car ahead. This will give you more time to react if they do something dumb. The old NASCAR excuse, “He checked up and I had no place to go,” probably won’t fly with the cop who investigates the accident.
4) If you have the time and interest, learn about vehicle dynamics. It will help you understand what to do to keep your car under control, and more importantly how to regain control when you lose it. One of the basics of vehicle dynamics is the tire “circle of friction.” Tires can accelerate, brake, or turn. Doing more than one of these things at a time means the tire can’t accomplish either one at maximum efficiency. So when you try to brake and turn on a slick surface, you may find yourself plowing straight ahead with the steering wheel at full lock. Abrupt weight transfer from front to rear wheels or vice versa can cause the car to swap ends suddenly. Get any good “how to” book on race driving for a detailed explanation of these subjects.
Finally, remember the four wheel drive system in your SUV doesn’t make you Superman. While there’s a lot to be said for four wheel drive in severe winter conditions, you shouldn’t try to drive 80 mph in a blizzard or on glare ice like some of the idiots I see out there. Four wheel traction helps you go, but all cars have four wheel braking and on ice it makes no difference what your propulsion system is — stopping is still a problem. So slow down, stay alert, and remember a 4X4 isn’t magic.