Getting Through Winter Safely

When it comes to surviving winter weather, you've got to think ahead. Sure, that's a tall order. Most of us are used to hopping in the old chariot, twisting the key and heading off to do our daily routine. But the threat of winter weather can turn that simple drive to work into a thrill ride... or worse.

To get the inside dope on how you should prepare (prepare, you say?) for Old Man Winter, we went to an expert. Kevin Schrantz is a professional driver who teaches courses at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. With years of experience in handling severe weather conditions, he knows whereof he speaks, and his first advice: get ready for what might come.

When you are driving in snowy and/or icy conditions, you should definitely adjust your vehicle speed downward, Schrantz told us. Obviously, in slippery conditions your stopping time and distance increase significantly, so slowing down will help you avoid rear-ending another vehicle is it comes to a sudden stop in front of you. One thing you might not realize is as your speed decreases, the tire footprint actually in contact with the surface increases, providing better traction.

On a similar note, when things are icy, you should increase your following distance. If a car-length of distance per every 10 miles per hour is your norm in dry weather, double or even triple that on snow and ice. Neither snow nor ice offer nearly the friction that regular pavement does, so as your wheels and tires slow during braking on those surfaces, the actual stopping power they offer decreases radically. The result: a stop you could make in 100 feet in dry weather might now take you 300 feet.

To give yourself significantly greater stopping power as well as better overall handling on snow and ice, you should consider switching to a true winter tire, Schrantz suggests. These days many vehicles are equipped with "all-season" tires, which gives consumers the impression that the tires are appropriate for year-round use. But while all-season tires are good, they do represent a compromise, because they are designed for use in a wide variety of conditions, including dry pavement, wet pavement and winter conditions. On the other hand, a true winter tire can give you optimum traction and handling in snow and ice.

"Many people don't understand that an all-season tire may only give them 50 percent of the traction and stopping power they would get with a winter tire," Schrantz said.

Since you can't change your tires while you're underway, the choice of a tire is just one area where preparation can be crucial. In addition, proper tire inflation is equally critical during periods of bad weather. While you might be tempted to lower your tires' inflation pressure if you are about to embark on a winter journey, Schrantz recommends that you keep you tires at the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure. This will help you tire offer the best "footprint" on the road for the best handling and stopping performance.

Born and raised in the Chicago area, Jack R. Nerad has seen more than his share of ice-and-snow driving. That's why he moved to Southern California.