You Can Go in Snow

Has it ever snowed at the Indianapolis 500? Has the Daytona 500 ever been postponed by a sudden ice storm? Has a blizzard ever wiped out the Monaco Grand Prix?

Since the answer to all these questions is no, you might wonder what a race driver (or in this case, a race driver school) can tell you about winter driving. And the answer is: a whole bunch. Why? Because race driving is all about car control -- keeping the car balanced as close to the limit of its capabilities as is humanly possible, and that's just what safe winter driving is all about.

Snow, ice, and wet conditions substantially lower a vehicle's traction and handling capabilities. For instance, a turn that you could negotiate with ease at 60 miles per hour in dry weather might suddenly become nearly impossible to negotiate at 30 miles per hour if it is covered with water, so understanding you car's limits and keeping your demands on the car within those limits is the key to safe winter driving.

With this important fact in mind, the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, based in Sonoma, California, offers the following helpful instructions as part of its safe driving course curriculum:
  1. Don't try to stretch more miles from your tires during the winter months. If your tread depth is getting low, it can have serious effects on dry pavement, but those effects are multiplied in wet and snowy conditions. When in doubt, get new tires.
  2. Keep tires inflated to the designated pressure (pounds per square inch or "PSI" number) listed in your car owner's manual or on the door jamb. Under-inflated tires can cause a car to react more slowly to steering, and they can also overheat, which could lead to a blowout.
  3. Winter snow tires are superior to "all-season" tires in snowy conditions. While the trend of the last two decades has been away from a yearly change to snow tires in the fall and back to "summer" tires in the spring, the fact is that tires designed specifically for winter use provide superior handling and traction in winter conditions. Depending upon where you live, you might want to consider purchasing a set of winter tires for the inclement-weather months.
  4. Test your car's handling and brakes in snowy conditions with no other cars nearby so you'll know how the vehicle will react in braking situations. Practicing in an empty, snow-covered parking lot could save you an accident or even your life when you are back on the open road.
  5. Of course, your goal is to avoid skids and spins. Knowing your vehicle's limits in unfavorable conditions goes a long way to assure that but if you suddenly go past the knife-edge of control, there are some techniques to help you avoid disaster.
  6. Focus on where you want to go and your hands will follow on the wheel, guiding you in the correct direction. While this sounds like an auto version of Zen, it works. Conversely, looking where the car is skidding can cause you to steer in that direction, causing a spin-out.
  7. In a skid, keep your foot off the brake and the accelerator and concentrate on steering until you regain control. Sudden inputs of braking or acceleration can just make things worse.
  8. Once you've recovered from the skid, gently apply the brakes. Skids turn into spin-outs when the driver applies the brakes too hard.
  9. If you're in a full spin-out, apply the brakes hard and hold them to slow down the car. Pumping the brakes will cause the car to "float" in multiple directions during the spin.
  10. If you're behind someone skidding, continue driving straight forward and slow down safely. Don't attempt to pass a skidding car.

Unfortunately, the leading cause of death during winter months is transportation accidents, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If you apply these tips for safe winter weather driving, you can avoid becoming one of those nasty statistics.



A native of Chicago, Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has had more than his fill of winter driving.

Danger in the Streets

Our roads could be killing our kids.  That's the stark conclusion to be drawn from a study recently released by the National Safe Kids Campaign.  Nearly nine out of 10 intersections studied have hazards that put children at risk as they walk to and from school, according to the research.

While the actual infrastructure of our streets and roadways is a problem, the research also found that unsafe driver behavior contributed to the creating unsafe conditions for child pedestrians. Of the intersections with traffic signals that Safe Kids studied, 87.3 percent have at least one of four common environmental and behavioral hazards that put children at risk as they walk to and from school. The four hazards are drivers who fail to stop or stop and then turn illegally; crosswalks in poor condition or not present at all; posted speed limits during school hours of 35 mph or more; and curb ramps that are missing or outside the crosswalk.

For good or ill, children are walking less these days, and that has contributed to a significant decline in child pedestrian deaths and injuries.  But pedestrian injury remains the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children of ages five to 14. Each year, more than 600 children 14 and under die from injuries they received while walking on or near streets and roadways, and 44,000 children 14 and under suffer motor vehicle-related pedestrian injuries.

The study, called "Kids at the Crossroads: A National Survey of Physical Environment and Motorist Behavior at Intersections in School Zones," examined conditions at intersections that are equipped with traffic signals that are near our nation's elementary and middle schools. A total of 102 intersections, 204 crossings and 3,640 vehicles were observed in 51 cities across 35 states.

The study revealed conditions that could lead to pedestrian casualties. Nearly half (47.5 percent) of the observed intersections had crosswalk markings in poor condition, with some markings missing or not present at all.  Even more troubling, 30 percent of observed drivers stopped within or past the boundaries of crosswalks, obstructing the pedestrian crossing.  Worst of all, almost 15 percent of observed drivers either passed straight through the crosswalk or stopped and then made an illegal turn.

"Teaching children pedestrian safety is a great start, but it's simply not enough," said Martin R. Eichelberger, M.D., president & CEO of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and director of Emergency Trauma and Burn Services at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We know that children under 10 are particularly vulnerable because kids can't fully comprehend hazardous conditions at intersections. That's why this program is working to curb unsafe driver behavior and improve infrastructure to help make walking to school as safe as possible."

For the fifth consecutive year, SAFE KIDS coalitions and chapters, concerned FedEx employees, transportation and law enforcement officials, and other safety advocates will heighten awareness in communities about hazards and environmental issues at intersections. These actions include assessing pedestrian conditions in residential areas, participating in school-based activities like International Walk to School Day and advocating for more funding for programs such as Safe Routes to School.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is the father of three school-age children.

Driving Super Sized

It's one thing to live large; it's a whole other thing to drive large.  With 7.2 million recreational vehicle drivers on the road today, RVing is among the fastest growing leisure activities in America.  But many owners at the wheels of these oversized vehicles aren't comfortable or familiar with many of the basic road rules associated with driving large vehicles, according to a survey by GMAC Insurance.

The survey of 2,500 Americans gauged RV owner fluency with vehicle operation, safety issues and driving acumen, including a series of questions derived from various states Department of Motor Vehicles drivers' tests or both standard and oversized vehicle tests. The survey also probed participants on their RV plans in the next 12 months and their comfort levels on operating and maintaining their vehicles.  The results of the survey were hardly comforting for those of us who share the road with recreational vehicles.

On average, 33 percent of RVers failed to correctly answer questions derived from standard drivers tests. Nearly half (44 percent) answered a series of questions derived from the oversized vehicle driver's license test questions incorrectly.

For instance, many RVers had trouble identifying unfavorable driving conditions. Half of RVers (52 percent) incorrectly stated that roads are most slippery during heavy rain.   While roads are slippery during a heavy storm, they are most slippery at the beginning of a storm, especially after a dry spell, and that's an important distinction when operating an oversized vehicle.  In addition, 50 percent indicated that they were not comfortable driving in rain or inclement conditions.

There also seem to be incorrect assumptions about safe passing maneuvers. One-in-three surveyed (35.3 percent) incorrectly stated that when passing an oversized vehicle, "it is best to pass slowly on the left." The correct answer is "it is best to pass quickly on the left."

Tire safety was another area in which RVers showed holes in their basic motoring knowledge. One-in-10 RVers (10.9 percent) incorrectly indicated one "should let air out of hot tires so the pressure goes back to normal."  Executing that procedure could result in dangerous under-inflation.  According to GMAC Insurance, the most common RV insurance claims are attributed to tire-related accidents.

If you think that recreational vehicle drivers lumber around corners, you're onto something.  Some 36 percent of those surveyed indicated they were not very comfortable turning corners.  Compared to an automobile, RV drivers must compensate for the extra height and length when cornering.

"The survey shows that there are literally millions of RVers on the road that could stand to brush up on their fundamentals," said Wade Bontrager, vice president of GMAC Insurance RV division. "We're working to help arm RVers with pertinent safety information found in our 10 Essentials to Safe RVing, and through grassroots safety rally programs to ensure smooth travels for RVers."

Happily, the news isn't all bad.  The survey also revealed areas where RVers are very comfortable and proficient at operating and driving RVs.  For instance, 85 percent of those surveyed are "extremely" comfortable driving on the freeway.  And RVers are also people of good conscience.  A full 70 percent of those surveyed agree that the right thing to do if you hit a parked car is to leave a note.  An unreported percentage would also leave a box of candy or flowers.

A big fan of cross country drives, Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has written frequently about the issue of sharing the road.

Treat Your Car Right

Cleanliness is next to Godliness, but there is more to maintaining your vehicle than simply washing it once in a while.  Unfortunately though not surprisingly, a recent survey by Shell found that the majority of Americans are more interested in keeping their ride looking good than in making certain that it runs the way it should.  And the survey identified some areas for improvement, from the car wash to the gas pump.

Of one thing there is no doubt, our countrymen love their cars.  Whether rinsing off the family SUV in the driveway or taking the convertible to a car wash for a special detailing, Americans spend a good deal of time keeping their prized possessions shiny and spot-free. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of keeping a car tidy, men seem to care more about how their vehicle looks on the outside than how it looks on the inside. In fact, according to the Shell survey, men (20 percent) are more likely than women (16 percent) to give their cars a special wash and wax treatment on the outside. On the other hand, women are slightly more likely (19 percent) than men (16 percent) to vacuum the interiors of their cars and add an air freshener.

And just as many men and women from coast to coast schedule regular hair cuts, they also agree that the best way to treat a car right is to take it in for routine maintenance. When asked how they prefer to pamper their car, 54 percent of survey respondents said they would perform, or have someone else perform, routine maintenance on their vehicles.  These chores include checking the tire pressure, oil and washer fluid.  The issue, though, is that some do it more frequently than others.

Specifically, the survey found only 24 percent of Americans perform some type of routine maintenance on their cars on a monthly basis.  There is a small, highly anal group of 18 percent that do it more frequently (approximately every two weeks,) but a plurality of those surveyed (40 percent) don't perform routine maintenance until their car's regular oil change.  Even more shocking, one out of every 10 Americans never, or hardly ever, performs routine maintenance to care for their car.  (Of course, they probably lease.)

Who does the best job of maintaining their vehicles?  Southerners, that's who.  In the South, nearly 50 percent attend to the needs of their cars at least once a month by performing routine maintenance. (Or at least they say they do.)  In addition, one out of every four Southerners always fills up with mid-grade or premium fuel, and an additional 14 percent use mid-grade or premium gasoline on occasion. In comparison, nearly a quarter of Western respondents (22 percent) surveyed said they purchase the cheapest gas regardless of the type of gasoline that is recommended by their car's manufacturer. What are they thinking?

While many Americans have tried to crack Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, they seem to have little interest in cracking the spine of their owner's manual. In fact, the majority of Americans (63 percent) have read only bits and pieces of their owner's manual, and 11 percent of Americans haven't even opened it. Only 23 percent of people have read their owner's manual from cover to cover, according to the survey.

So what's the takeaway from the survey?  While we all want our cars to run properly and look great, it seems many of us are skimping on the smallest of chores.  So pamper your car a little.  In fact, if it takes premium gas, you might even want to treat your personal chariot to a little Shell V-Power fuel.  You know, it's the little things that mean a lot.

Automotive journalist Luigi Fraschini, who lives in Cleveland, not only washes his car frequently, he also talks to it.

10 Commandments of Wireless Use

Wireless phones get a bad rap as a distraction to drivers.  What goes under-reported is the fact that while the use of mobile phones might play a hand in some accidents, mobile phones are also frequent lifesavers, helping summon help in emergencies far quicker and with more accuracy that if the populace relied on land lines alone.  The fact is that whatever you do that might distract you during driving, whether it is looking at pretty girls or arguing with your spouse, is a danger.  So always remember that safety is your first responsibility behind the wheel.  If you decide to use a mobile phone while driving, do it correctly. 
 
"Road trips are a great American tradition, but drivers face many distractions in the car -- from eating lunch on-the-go, to kids playing in the back seat, to changing the radio station or CD," said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA -- The Wireless Association. "For years, the wireless industry has worked hard to educate drivers on the range of distractions they face, and to remind them that safety is always their first responsibility. That means using a wireless phone wisely, and recognizing when it's not the right time to make a call."

What are the wrong times to make a mobile call?  In times when extra concentration on your driving is required -- in heavy traffic, in bad weather, in unfamiliar territory or when the conversation might be stressful or emotional.  In fact, a good rule of thumb is to never talk to your mother-in-law while driving at all.
  
While some self-proclaimed safety experts have called for a complete ban on mobile phone use when driving, we have heard of no groundswell of support for a ban on talking with your passenger, listening to CDs or, heaven forefend, eating a cheeseburger while at the wheel of a vehicle.  Instead, we suggest that you as a driver understand that talking on a mobile phone when driving can distract you from the important task at hand -- piloting your vehicle safely.  With that understanding, it is also worth considering the lessons of the wireless industry's educational campaign "Safety, Your Most Important Call."

Here are the top 10 tips for living with a wireless phone while driving:

  1. Get to know your wireless phone's features, such as speed dial and voice activation.  Further, learn those features and how to use them safely and effortlessly BEFORE you try to use them behind the wheel of your car.
  2. When available, use a hands-free device.  While not a panacea, a hands-free device can help you maintain solid control of your vehicle by allowing you to steer with both hands.  Because they are so inexpensive, it's almost inexcusable NOT to use a hands-free device.
  3. Position your wireless phone within easy reach of your driving position before you get your vehicle underway.  Reaching for a ringing phone in a briefcase located in the backseat is an invitation for disaster.
  4. Let voicemail take your call if you can't reach your phone or if you are driving in difficult conditions.  Remember, just because it rings doesn't mean you have to answer it.
  5. Let the person you are speaking with know you are driving.  It is not rude but, instead, very prudent to suspend your call if necessary.
  6. Dial your phone sensibly.  Dialing lengthy numbers while traveling at freeway speeds can expose you and those around you to deadly dangers.  Instead place calls when stopped or before pulling into traffic.
  7. Do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations while driving.  This holds true whether these conversations take place on the phone or with a passenger.
  8. Dial 9-1-1 or other local emergency numbers to help others or yourself.  The phone can be a lifesaving tool, helping you to guide help to emergency situations.
  9. Do not look up phone numbers or take notes while driving. 
  10. Realize there are times you should not call while driving, for example, in hazardous weather conditions, in heavy traffic or on unfamiliar roadways.

Driving Today contributor Tom Ripley is based in Villefranche, France, where he studies international automotive trends, safety advances and the human condition.