Thinking Driver delivers Winter Driving Skills Training to Government of Northwest Territories, Department of Transportation Employees.
When I was asked if I would like to go to the Northwest Territories (NWT) for three weeks to deliver 'Winter Driving: Skid Control and Recovery', I thought what a great opportunity to see the North and at the same time, be in the very best part of Canada to facilitate winter driving courses.
My first stop was Yellowknife, where I was warmly greeted by the NWT employees. They had a large field near the airport that had been snow plowed for this course - which was great - but then they added water. Needless to say, this was an excellent simulation of roads turned to ice and/or their famous 'ice roads'.
We begin training with a classroom theory session in Winter Driving Fundamentals. We cover such things as the 6 conditions of winter driving, fundamentals of traction and control, 3 principal types of skid and how to recover from them. There were a lot of good questions in the class which made for an excellent discussion time prior to going out in the vehicles and putting it all into practical application.
Getting into the vehicles and out onto the icy surface to put the theory into practice really raises the enthusiasm and excitement of the group. It's about the most fun you can have in winter driving conditions: A safe, closed course, free of obstruction or other traffic, perfect for skidding.
When I took off to the Great White North, I cam prepared and was certainly grateful to have packed well once the temperature hit -40 degrees. The extra hat I picked up was very useful.
Despite the chillier temperatures, each morning I awoke to the beauty of a northern sunrise in all its glory. Breathtaking to behold and what a way to start my day!
After a week in Yellowknife, it was time to head to Hay River for a week. This leg of the journey began with a 45 minute flight over "Great Slave Lake" in a DC-3 with Buffalo Air. Not a large plane, but cozy, friendly, and we arrived safe and sound.
Again I was warmly greeted and welcomed by the NWT staff. Their track was created on an open field with a large snow island in the middle. The track was a combination of packed snow, ice, with some gravel sticking out to create a good example of what is found on local roads. The practical training was challenging, but we only had to shovel snow once to free a truck from the snow piled island. Another winter skill learned - how to get your vehicle unstuck!
My third week in the North started with another flight aboard Buffalo Air in that DC-3 to Yellowknife, followed by a 1.5 hour flight in a Boeing 737 to Inuvik with a brief stop over at Norman Wells. Inuvik was the smaller of the three locations and again filled with extremely friendly people. Once again the NWT staff greeted me like a Rock Star.
The practical training location was a large square area on the Mackenzie River, plowed for this course. For safety reasons, there was a wide snow bank separating out training area from an ice road that leads to Tukoyaktuk. This area proved to be challenging and a good simulation of what these NWT employees drive on a daily basis.
At the beginning of these three weeks, I felt a bit intimidated with the thought of attempting to teach winter driving skills to people who live their entire lives in the North and grew up in this driving environment. What could I teach that they didn't already know? As it turned out, the Thinking Driver program had many things to offer: How to drive in winter with new vehicle technology such as ABS brakes or electronic stabilizers; One of the main things that I was able to pass on to these students, is how to handle an 'under-steer' situation. Most were experts when their vehicle went into 'over-steer', but were unfamiliar with how to get out of an 'under-steer'. 90% of those who attended indicated they learned new things as well as having obtained an excellent review and reminder in other areas that could be improved upon.
I believe that if I can pass on even one good tip to enhance a driver's skill and competence and make driving a safer part of their day, then I've done my job and can go home happy and with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. After three weeks in the Northwest Territories, I am a happy man indeed.
– Michael Glas, Chief Instructor, Thinking Driver, March 2013
"Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you slip slide away."
Paul Simon sang it in 1977 (there I go dating myself again) and it's still happening every winter. But with some simple techniques and a bit of practise you can eliminate that 'slip sliding away'.
Traction is the main element to consider when driving in winter conditions and when you have lost traction you are slip sliding. It doesn't matter what the road surface is or what the conditions are; there is a finite amount of grip or traction between the tires of your vehicle and that road.
Once you exceed the available traction and your vehicle is no longer responding to your commands to steer, brake or accelerate, you are no longer in control. Your final destination is now in the hand of Newton-Sir Isaac Newton, that is. Vehicle control is about physics and we learned all that we really need to know about it in high school (grade 9 physics if I recall that far back).
Learning skills to observe these laws can take a bit of practise, but no amount of skill or luck will let you dodge them. Ignore Newton at your peril.
Newton's first law says that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by another force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by another force. This law is often call 'the law of inertia'.
In driving, if your vehicle is not moving, it doesn't want to move unless acted on by another force. Once your vehicle is moving, it wants to stay moving in the same direction as it is going unless acted upon by other forces.
You exert force to change the speed or direction by altering the speed or path of the tires and as they grip the road, your direction or speed changes; but only if you have maintained traction and they are not skidding.
Abrupt steering, braking or acceleration exerts excessive forces that may exceed the available traction and initiate a skid or spin. That's why controlling with finesse is critical to winter safety. Do everything as smoothly and as gently as you can to keep the vehicle balanced and maintain the tires' grip with the road.
Here are some techniques to try:
- Leave yourself extra space and begin to brake early when you know that you may have to slow or stop. The longer distance that you use to slow, the less traction that you need to stay in control.
- Keep your speed lower than usual on corners and avoid sliding sideways.
- Squeeze and ease the brake and accelerator. Start gently, and gradually increase pressure to minimize the weight shift of the vehicle on braking or acceleration and reduce the chances of traction loss.
- Avoid abrupt steering and use 'total control steering'. Keep your hands at the 9 and 3 o'clock position on the steering wheel and 'shuffle' or 'push and pull' the steering wheel to the left or right. This will help you make directional changes more progressively and maintain your traction.
- Traction is improved when you have good winter tires and enough weight in the vehicle. Drivers with empty rear wheel drive pickup trucks could consider adding weight when conditions are slippery.
- Look well ahead in slippery conditions to plan when you may need to slow or stop. Avoid coming to a complete stop when possible and legal, particularly on hills where more traction is needed to get moving than is needed to keep moving. If you stop on a hill, it's much more difficult to get going.
- Read the road surface and try to drive where there is better traction and minimal ice.
- If you do find yourself sliding away and using your anti-lock brakes, use them correctly. If you feel or hear your anti-lock brakes activating, remember, the right reaction is to push the brake pedal down hard and look and steer where you want to go. Don't let up on the pedal until you are either back under control or stopped. The anti-lock brakes are designed to keep your wheels from locking up and allow you to steer out of danger.
Practise these techniques and you may find yourself singing Randy Bachman instead of Paul Simon and instead of 'Slip Sliding Away', you will be safely 'Rollin' Down the Highway'.
Written By: Spencer McDonald, President, Thinking Driver
About the Author - Spencer McDonald is a respected authority on driver behaviour, psychology and training, and is the founder of Thinking Driver. To learn more about Mr. McDonald, please visit www.thinkingdriver.com.