Inexperience and winter’s climate can be an exciting mix, especially when it involves pickups and public roads. You can throttle back some of the excitement of driving on water, ice and snow when you know what to expect and how to react.
There are two major factors that make winter driving so different from driving any other time of year: reduced visibility and slippery surfaces.
Maximizing your reaction time and improving your pickup’s traction are only half of defensive winter driving. The other half is the skill of the person behind the wheel when traction and control suddenly turn to slip and slide.
Reducing the anxiety of the winter driving experience begins by improving the way your pickup is equipped. Start with the normal maintenance of the vehicle to make sure that everything is in top operating condition. Pay close attention to headlights and windshield wipers as they are key elements to safer driving.
Replace the windshield blades with a pair of the silicone-impregnated type to maximize visibility. ArmorAll’s UltraFlex, the Bosch ICON, PIAA’s Si-Tech and Tripledge all offer excellent winter wipers using silicone technology to keep the windshield clear and streak-free.
Be sure the windshield washer fluid is filled with the proper product to withstand low temperatures, to cut grease and oil and to prevent ice build-up.
When it comes to headlights, our new pickups have pretty decent designs. But if you are driving an older pickup, think seriously about replacing the stock halogen bulbs with a high-performance variety such as Sylvania’s SilverStar line or upgrading to an HID headlight system such as those offered by Philips.
Auxiliary lights (see our light buyers guide in this issue) are also a good way to address the reduced visibility that we face in winter driving conditions.
Fog lights are specifically designed to illuminate low along the road surface and to minimize reflective glare. Driving lights can reach out longer and wider than your stock headlights for the times when you are on country roads with no oncoming traffic.
Better lights help you avoid hazards and give you more time to react when you need more time to stop.
A Grip on Traction
Dedicated winter tires make a tremendous difference in vehicle control. Today’s dedicated ice/snow tires have different tread designs than non-winter tires and softer tread compounds specifically formulated for such tasks. The compound stays softer when the temperatures drop, which means they can conform better to the road surfaces.
Increased siping also increases the biting edges of the tire tread and gives the thin layer of water that forms between tread block and ice a place to go, which improves the amount of tread that is touching the road surface.
Tougher winter conditions call for studded tires and the worst weather may even require chains to supplement winter tires.
Clearing snow and ice from the windows, buckling up and getting comfortable in the seat leads up to the most important thing you can do in winter driving: adjust your speed to the road and climate conditions.
Most people get in trouble because they drive too fast.
When traction is compromised by ice and snow, mass and inertia become your worst enemies.
Accelerate like you have a raw egg underfoot, drive a lot slower, leave plenty of distance between your vehicle and the one in front, and slow down using the engine compression or with light pressure on the brakes.
Wet roads, ice and snow mean your vehicle needs more distance to stop. More room allows you time to reduce speed gradually, which is much better than getting on the brakes aggressively. Once tires start sliding there’s no steering control – you go where mass and inertia take you.
Pump the brakes hard and rapidly to stop quickly. Pump the brakes until they lock up and then let off, even if your truck is ABS-equipped.
A Safety Bubble
Leave yourself space in every direction when you are driving. Rather than following up close to other vehicles or filling up the lanes beside other vehicles, try to set your pace in the traffic in such a way that you leave a big safety bubble around you where there are no other vehicles.
Let that cluster of vehicles that are in front of you move on out ahead. When you see a big group of vehicles coming up behind you, make plans to let them pass.
Always leave yourself an out: If you are approaching an area where there is a bunch of vehicles slowing down or stopping, always look for that space that you can fit your truck into in case you are unable to get stopped or a vehicle that is coming up behind you is unable to get stopped.
On banked to slanted roadways, the best way to maintain grip is to keep moving. So look for those openings that allow you to maintain a slow speed without stopping.
In the event of understeering (when you turn the front wheels but the vehicle keeps going straight), lift off the brake and turn back toward the center until the steering grip is restored.
Picture how the tires are sliding sideways and that you need to straighten them to regain steering traction. As long as the tires are rolling you have steering. If they lock up, you don’t.
Understeer occurs when you drive into a corner too fast or when you turn the steering wheel too sharply. Turning back to center may seem counter-intuitive, but it works like a charm on snow and ice.
In an oversteer situation – that’s when the back end is coming around – steer into the skid. As Mark Cox, the chief driving instructor at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School (winterdrive.com) in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says, “Look where you want to go and steer toward it while smoothly accelerating.”
When it comes to towing in winter conditions all the other driving techniques apply. Keep your pickup’s speed matched to the conditions and leave plenty of distance between any vehicles ahead so you have time to react and slow down. Having to get hard on the binders is what makes the tail wag the dog.
If the trailer tries to put on a skating exhibition by sliding sideways, add some brake to the trailer with the controller while accelerating slowly and smoothly.
Towing or not, a little winter driving know-how can get you through a lot of the white stuff. Get a grip, but if you lose it, don’t panic and go with the flow.