This winter, I attended an event put on by Toyota at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Things started with some classroom instruction on winter driving, while the afternoon consisted of driving around an ice and snow track in two of Toyota’s newest all-wheel drive vehicles: the 2019 RAV4 and the Prius AWD. The experience gave me a much better grasp on the dos and don’ts of driving in the snow. Here’s some of what I learned.
Have Good Tires
As this was Bridgestone’s winter driving school, the company’s Blizzak tire was referenced quite often. What most people don’t know about winter tires is that the benefit isn’t as much related to the tire’s tread as it is to its rubber compound. At low temperatures, your average all-season tire would feel rock hard to the touch, as it would essentially freeze, leaving it with little to no grip. Winter tires use a super soft compound that remains soft — and therefore grippy — at low temperatures. On the other hand, though, the compound is often too soft for consistent use over dry surfaces, which is the reason winter tires don’t last very long.
In my experience, I couldn’t believe how effective the Blizzaks on these vehicles were. Never before have I had so much control of a vehicle in the snow. Driving on this snow course with these vehicles was like driving on dry, compacted dirt in the middle of summer. Without the right tires, none of the following rules even matter.
Adjust Your Seating Position
This applies more to driving in general than it does to just winter driving. A good rule of thumb for how close you should be sitting to the steering wheel is that when you extend your arm out over the wheel, your wrist should brake directly over top of it. Additionally, keep an athletic stance with slight bends to your arms and knees. Also, try to maximize your visibility through the A-pillars, and ensure that the side and rearview mirrors are adjusted accordingly. Hands should be kept at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the steering wheel, and you should shuffle them to steer. Don’t use hand-over-hand.
Brake Early and Aggressively
No matter how good your tires are, speed is the enemy on ice. Scrubbing off speed by braking early, and with intent, is paramount to being able to control the vehicle through these next steps.
Load Your Axles
In ice driving, braking isn’t just used for slowing the car down, but also for managing the vehicle’s weight. When you’re on the gas, a portion of the car’s weight is shifted over the rear wheels. Slamming on the brakes shifts the majority of that weight over the front axle, which allows for better front-wheel traction, enabling better handling. So when you see a turn coming up, a quick, firm, pump of the brakes can send all of the vehicle’s weight to the front, thus increase the effectiveness of your steering.
Pay attention to whether you’re steering or just sliding. Going into the experience — perhaps from playing too much Grand Theft Auto — I had been under the impression that steering hard and aggressively is the way to go anytime sliding is involved. It turns out, this is the last thing you want to do because in practice, it tends to have a “plowing” effect, where your sharply turned tires plow the snow underneath them, rather than rolling, and the car just slides forward. Keeping the wheels turned at a milder angle, on the other hand, allows the wheels to actually work as intended, and enables better control of the vehicle.
In my first few laps of the track, it may seem counter-intuitive, but on sharp turns, it was often more productive to steer as if I was only on a gradual turn, as steering sharply into the turn would’ve resulted in the plowing effect I just mentioned.
This kind of ties everything together. Consciously separating your controls makes a big difference when driving on low-friction surfaces — and braking, steering and accelerating should all be done individually. In practice, this means getting all of your braking done before turning the wheel, and then doing all of your steering before getting back on the gas.
In practice, this goes as follows. Say you’re coming into a 180-degree turn. Aim toward the apex and begin to brake, almost coming to a complete stop as you reach the apex, shifting all of the weight toward to the front of the vehicle. Then steer, but only gradually at first, as the car begins to turn, allowing the small amount of momentum that remains to pull your through the curve. If you feel the car sliding, you may have the wheel turned too far, creating that plowing effect. Finally, as you come through the turn, let the wheel return to center and get back on the gas. Separating your controls like this makes it easy to stay focused and really hard to lose control.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.