When I lived in Chicago, I was always amazed by the way drivers behaved during the first winter storm. The dozens of fender benders suggested that none of these people had ever driven in snow.
While some accidents are unavoidable, drivers can improve the odds of making it through winter unscathed by using the right equipment and learning a few handling techniques.
Tip No.1: Not All Cars Are Created Equal
All-or four-wheel drive cars are ideal for winter driving, since engine power automatically goes to the wheels with the best traction. Front-wheel drive cars have better traction than rear-wheel drive, since most of the vehicle's weight is over the drive axle.
On the other hand, front-wheel drive cars are harder to regain control of once they start to skid. While rear-wheel drive cars tend to oversteer or fishtail, front-wheel drives cars understeer or push into the corners.
If a rear-wheel drive car starts to fishtail, it's pretty easy to straighten out the back end by pushing down on the gas pedal.
When a front-wheel drive car drifts into understeer, the driver needs to lift off the accelerator, but not apply the brakes. Braking when a front-wheel drive car goes out of control further upsets the chassis. After lifting off the gas, straighten out the steering wheel to resume directional control.
Tip No.2: Rear-Wheel Drive Cars Need Stability Control
The problem with rear-wheel drive cars on wet roads is that the bulk of the vehicle's weight is over the front axle, rather than the rear drive axle. When I was a kid, it was common practice to put a couple big bags of road salt in the trunk to add weight to the back of the car.
These days, vehicle stability control, traction control and antilock braking do a much better job of maintaining directional control than the old salt bags. Drivers who enjoy the performance of rear-wheel drive cars should look for these features if they're planning to drive those cars in winter weather.
Tip No.3: Invest in Winter Tires
A car's safety system is only as good as the four contact patches that the tires make with the pavement. Investing in a good set of winter tires makes a huge difference in handling, especially for rear-wheel drive cars.
All-season radials are the cross-trainers of the tire world. They are designed to function in a wide variety of temperatures and road conditions. While they provide acceptable performance for year-round driving, they can't provide the traction of tires compounded specifically for winter.
Winter tires are made of rubber that stays soft in extreme cold temperatures. They also contain silicon compounds that stick to the snow, so the tires can channel it out of the car's way.
The tread pattern on a winter tire has more void areas than an all-season radial. A void area is a gap in the tread that gives snow and mud a place to go. Sipes are small rubber blades in the tread that scrape moisture off the road to enhance traction.
Since winter tires are compounded for cold temperatures, drivers need to remove them and use separate treads in the summer. I recommend buying an inexpensive set of wheels to mount the winter tires on: it makes it easier to change over in the fall and spring, and prevents the tire beads from breaking down.
The best place to shop for tires is online: buyers have many more options, and access to information about the newest technology.
The Tire Rack (http://www.tirerack.com) carries all of the major brands: the company has its own test facility where professional drivers evaluate new products, and its web site contains an exhaustive amount of information for the consumer. With few exceptions, their prices are more competitive than local retailers.
Buyers can find a local installer online, and have their tires drop shipped directly to the installation shop. The Tire Rack uses a star rating system and includes consumer reviews of all its local installers.
Tip No.4: Driving Schools
Driving schools are the best place to learn how to handle a car in winter weather. Practice makes perfect: the only way to learn how to get out of a skid is to do doughnuts until the rescue skill becomes second nature.
The Bondurant School in Chandler Arizona uses a skid pad and specially equipped vehicles to teach emergency maneuvers.
My favorite place to practice winter driving skills is the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (http://www.winterdrive.com). If regular school had been this much fun, I would never have skipped class.
The school uses an ice track to teach drivers the principles of weight transfer. Believe it or not, it's possible to drive at a high rate of speed on ice with no antilock braking or traction control, and be in complete control of the vehicle.
Classes at the Bridgestone school begin in mid-December and run through March. They include half-day safety courses for the novice, as well as advanced performance courses for people who compete in World Rally Cup.