I slowed the SUV I was driving as I approached a
right-hand turn I'd made so many times before. But
I guess I was still carrying a little more speed
this time or perhaps the road's icy surface had gotten
slicker as traffic polished its surface. Even with
four-wheel drive engaged, all I could do was hold
on while the car pirouetted 180 degrees before coming
to a stop while facing the wrong way in traffic.
Fortunately, there would be no collision, no damage
to my vehicle or my passenger, and only minor bruising
to my ego, because I was driving not on public roads
but at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School just
outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Begun 22 years ago by a couple of French rally racers
and sponsored for the last nine years by Bridgestone,
the winter driving school offers half-, full- and
even two-day classes from mid-December through mid-March
in the proper techniques for driving on snow and
In addition to the occasional student who comes
out for a half-day break from Steamboat Springs'
famed ski slopes, 96 percent of the school's students
come to this town tucked amid the mountains that
surround the Yampa Valley near the Colorado-Wyoming
border primarily for driving education. That includes
professional racecar drivers, auto company engineers,
the Secret Service and even the military's Special
Forces units, who do their driving after dark while
wearing night-vision goggles.
Sure, it's fun to slide around on snow and ice in
someone else's vehicle, but driving through winter
weather is serious business. Not just sheetmetal
but lives are at stake.
"The number one rule is to adjust your speed
for the conditions," says instructor Morgan
Kavanaugh. He adds that he's not just talking about
the weather and road surface, but reminds us to scan
the lay of the land, to pay attention to the angle
of each corner and to whether the road is banked
or falls off camber, encouraging a vehicle to slide
toward on-coming traffic.
"A good driver reacts, a great driver anticipates,"
The winter driving school equips good drivers with
the skills they need to become great when winter
arrives. Among the keys are understanding grip, the
traction between your vehicle's tires and the road
surfaces; how to enhance that grip by being able
to transfer weight from front to back or back to
front (or, for advanced students, from side-to-side);
stopping a spin before it happens, and stopping as
quickly as possible, even on an ice, and knowing
that if you can't stop how to steer around an obstacle.
Modern vehicles often are equipped with advanced
computerized technologies, antilock brakes and dynamic
stability controls that seem to take over in bad
weather and help a driver keep a vehicle under control.
But school director Mark Cox notes that, "even
with all the technologies in the world, you can't
overcome the laws of physics. The technologies only
give you a buffer. If you've already made a mistake,
all the technology can do is to try to keep it from
becoming catastrophic. You as the driver are not
off the hook. You should never evoke these systems."
We learned in our full day of instruction, you can
drive confidently even in winter conditions, replacing
panic with preparation.
As Kavanaugh stressed, you have to adjust your speed
for the conditions, but that doesn't mean you have
to creep along the road. You can drive at a reasonable
rate, provided you pay attention to grip - the traction
between your vehicle and an icy or snow-covered road
For example, roads usually are more slippery when
the temperature is around 32 degrees than when it's
down in the teens or even zero or below. Why? Because
ice may appear to be frozen solidly at 32, but the
weight of your vehicle and the movement of your tires
will cause enough melting to create a thin film of
water on top of the ice.
All-season tires are designed to help maintain grip
throughout the year, but winter tires are specifically
designed for cold season conditions and a set of
four is a lot less expensive than a visit to the
body shop or hospital.
Obviously, Bridgestone is the winter driving school's
primary sponsor and all its vehicles are equipped
with that company's Blizzak brand, but the school's
staff barely mention them. I will: Several years
ago, I drove a Mazda Miata, a lightweight and rear-wheel
drive sports car that was nearly unmanageable on
icy Michigan freeways until a set of four Blizzaks
was installed. Suddenly, the car performed like a
But Blizzaks aren't your only choice for a suitable
winter tire. The
Tire Rack is a national tire retailer with an
extensive testing program and its website provides
good comparisons of various brands of tires.
But even if your vehicle is equipped with winter
tires, its driver needs to be equipped with winter
driving techniques. These include an awareness of
the weight transfer your vehicle undergoes as it
accelerates, slows and turns.
"Your natural instincts are the devil's temptation,"
instructor Kavanaugh reminds us as he emphasizes
that in winter conditions, a driver needs to make
a conscious effort to separate braking, steering
and acceleration to maintain grip and control.
To illustrate, Kavanaugh had us induce a slide,
then keeps reminding us to wait and then wait a little
longer, until the car had slowed enough to regain
grip, before we start to make corrective maneuvers
with the steering wheel.
The technique works, and the school provides a setting
for learning and practice.
Proper braking also is crucial. We practice with
antilock systems off and on. Even with ABS, stopping
distances may not be shortened, so we learn when
and how to look for an escape route even while braking.
Even how you place your hands on the steering wheel
is important. The school stresses the 9 and 3 o'clock
positions for left and right hands, and shuffling
the wheel rather than getting into a situation where
your arms are crossed, because you won't be able
to steer properly even if your vehicle does regain
Not everyone can attend the school. For those who
can't, but who want to improve their winter driving
techniques at home, the school offers a summary in
VHS or DVD format for $24 plus shipping through its
website at www.winterdrive.com
or by calling (800) 949-7543 (WHY SKID).
(A version of this story first
appeared in the January 6, 2005 edition of The