I’m driving a 2012 GMC Terrain up a snow-packed Colorado mountain road. The 5-seater crossover is equipped with anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, and a camera-based crash avoidance system to boot, and I’m feeling pretty good about my control of the road.
And then the rear tire slips as I head into a curve.
Even with a professional driving instructor by my side, coming close to a spin-out is unsettling. Moreover, it’s a little embarrassing. Writing about cars is my job. You’d think I’d know how to drive them. Having lived in the hills of Washington and the suburbs of New Jersey, I’m no stranger to winter driving conditions. But even with a few blizzards under my belt, I can’t change the laws of physics.
Nearly a quarter of all accidents happen on snowy roads, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, and 70 percent of the nation’s highways and byways snake through a snowy region. Falling snow reduces visibility, and slippery roads make it harder for drivers to steer and stop cars. In fact, each year 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy, or icy pavement, and 2,100 people will die. Winter driving is no joke.
To control a 3,800-pound vehicle in the snow, you’re going to need a lot of traction. That’s what helps a vehicle up a slick hill and keeps it from sliding into oncoming traffic when you mean to turn the corner.
And, of course, the places where you’ll need traction the most are the places where you’ll have it the least. Stop signs, red lights, and sharp turns are all where drivers apply brakes and melt and pack down snow, which can later turn to ice. And do you know what traction is like on ice? Practically nonexistent.
So how do you get traction in the snow? Savvy drivers in snow-blanketed locations will head down to a service station and switch to snow tires. (The better stations will store a customer’s all-season tires until the spring thaw comes.) Snow tires have softer rubber composite and bigger, deeper tread that can grip snowy roads better than all-seasons. The difference is significant, but hard to measure because all-season tires vary greatly between vehicles. The rule of thumb is that if you frequently hear or engage your vehicle’s stability control system, you need snow tires. However, experts will still tell you that a one-time $500 insurance policy to help ensure an accident doesn’t happen is a good bet to make.
While tires will play a significant role in keeping you moving during the next winter storm, other vehicle technologies can also keep you on the road and out of ditches. Vehicles with all-wheel drive will move better through slushy roads, and stability control will help drivers keep their cars pointed in the right direction. The adage of adding weight to the car only works in trucks or cars with rear-wheel drive – there’s not much of an advantage if you have a front-wheel drive car.
But while you can’t add all-wheel drive, stability control, traction control, or ABS brakes once you take the car home from the dealer, you can keep a set of chains in the car. They’re an inexpensive safety net to help you get a better grip on icy roads, trudge through heavy snowfall, or make it up hills. You’ll do even better if you drive slow and maintain a constant speed. In other words, avoid hard braking.
Braking can transfer weight from the back to the front of the car, which is what I did in my 2012 GMC Terrain. As I steered the vehicle left around a corner, I probably stepped on the brakes like I normally would. That sudden change in momentum was all it took to shift the weight from the back wheels to the front wheels, and threaten what would have been the start of oversteer.
Oversteer and understeer are the two classic causes of many winter driving accidents. The former is exactly what it sounds like, occurring when the car turns more than you want it to, spinning into the direction of a turn. If you’ve ever ended up pointed in the wrong direction, there’s a good chance oversteer got you there. The latter happens when a car turns less than you want it to – and is typically the more frustrating of the two because there’s little you can do to correct it once it happens.
To avoid these spins, driving experts will tell you to brake when the road is straight and before you head into a turn. The goal is to slow the vehicle as much as you can while on a straight road so you don’t have to apply the brakes on a curve, which can cause that weight transfer and result in over- or understeer.
But the best advice driving instructors will give you is to drive slowly and keep a lot of distance between you and the car in front of you to avoid these situations in the first place.
Tips for winter driving from General Motors:
Be prepared: Get your vehicle ready for winter and keep the gas tank full. Always carry a text-capable mobile phone and charger in case of an accident. Remember: text messages may still work even when voice calls won’t.
Stock up: Keep emergency winter supplies stocked in the car, such as warm hats, gloves, boots, blankets, candles, flashlights, jumper cables, a shovel, ice scrapers, and food.
Be alert: Winter driving is more tiring than driving during regular road conditions, so drive only when well-rested, and minimize cabin distractions in the car, such as music, phones, and conversations. Cool temperatures will help keep you alert, and a pair of sunglasses will help dampen glare off of snow in the daylight.
Take it slow: Try to slow down on a straight path before a hill descent, and downshift to a lower gear. Avoid harsh use of brakes to prevent unwanted weight transfer. Some tire slippage may occur, so prepare yourself for a potential oversteer situation.
Correcting oversteer: Oversteer is when your vehicle turns more than you intended, and is often caused by excessive speed followed by weight transferring from the back to the front wheels. Luckily, correcting oversteer is instinctual. To correct the spin, do not brake – instead steer in the direction of the skid.
Correcting understeer: With understeer, your vehicle doesn’t turn as much as you want it to. It’s typically caused by excessive speed followed by excessive steering and braking. To correct understeer, you’ll need to reduce your braking and steering and let your tires roll and find the cornering grip. Unfortunately, these maneuvers go against a driver’s instincts and take time to correct the spin. It always helps to look in the direction of where you want the car to go.
Getting unstuck: Stepping on the gas may cause the tires to spin and the snow under it to melt. Instead, “rock” the car gently from forward to reverse and back to try to dislodge the vehicle. If you don’t have enough traction to rock the car, consider spreading kitty litter under the tires to create a surface with more grip.