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Good driving habits for bad weather

Don't get lulled into a false sense of security
by your car's safety features

By Evelyn Kanter

Winter driving requires extra caution, even in a vehicle like this 2006 Cadillac Escalade EXT. CarTest! photo by 'Crash' Corrigan."Takes the angst out of winter driving."  

"Lets you go in the snow."

"All the power to all the wheels all the time."  

Automotive ads would have us believe the engineering geniuses who gave us anti-lock brakes, traction control, all-wheel and four-wheel drive and even cruise control, also can shield us from the basic laws of physics. Not quite.

Of course cars are safer than ever. It's the drivers who may not be, because we've been lulled into a false sense of security by all those high-tech wonders - and the number of spin-outs, sliders and multi-car crashes in any snowfall proves it.

Simply, bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and the bigger you are and the faster you go, the more distance you need to stop. That means big and heavy SUVs, pick-ups, and full-size family sedans -- even those with state-of-the-art safety braking and drive train technology -- need as much as 10 times more distance to stop when roads are slick or icy.

Traction control holds back the spinning wheel and allows the engine's power to switch to the wheels that have a better grip. ABS reduces what engineers call 'pedal travel' and provides a more constant braking feel, so ABS requires firm, constant pressure -- no pumping as on conventional brakes. In fact, you should jam on the brakes as fast as you can, and as hard as you can -- and keep your foot there -- to engage ABS. Don't be scared by the grinding noise -- that means ABS is working.

Both ABS and traction control require a firm grip on the steering wheel. Not white knuckle, just firm. And remember -- try not to brake and steer at the same time, because you are asking the car to do too many things at once. Brake first, and when you feel ABS kick in, then steer, gently. Jam the brakes, and be gentle on the wheel.

It takes practice, and the best way to find out what traction control and ABS can do is to practice skids and emergency stops before you need them. Find an empty parking lot -- at the mall or a high school on a weekend -- where you have lots of room to lose and regain control, and seek out a patch of wet, snowy or icy pavement.

Back to the steering wheel -- forget that rule about 'steer into the skid'. That's confusing. It's easier than that -- just look where you want to go and steer to get there. Smoothly and slowly, please, since quick and jerky steering can worsen the skid.

Snow tires, like this Blizzak Revo1, can help when you encounter hidden black ice.Pay attention to the thermometer. Temperatures around freezing are especially dangerous, since wet snow and ice are more slippery than the frozen-solid variety. Especially dangerous is so-called black ice -- a thin veneer of ice on an otherwise dry road. It is not visible, and you can spin out without knowing why. Be on guard, also, at dips in the road and other shady spots, bridges and overpasses, where melted snow can freeze while the rest of the road is only wet.

Blowing snow can hide a layer of ice. The safest snow is the kind that crunches under the wheels, telling you it is firm enough to provide traction in starts and stops.

It's not too late to get your vehicle ready for bad weather driving. Keep the windshield reservoir full -- you'll be using a lot to keep the windshield clear of road salt and grime. Never use plain water, unless you want a coat of ice that's all but impossible to defrost. Ditto, never use water on a frozen lock -- use a quick blast with a hair dryer, a quick squirt of 10W40 oil or a commercial lock de-icer.

Check the battery, too, since Old Breakdown needs extra time and power to warm up. Shut off the radio, heater and other power-drainers when you start the vehicle in order to lessen the power drain. To aid in starting off on icy ground, if rock salt isn't handy, kitty litter makes a great, inexpensive substitute. Be sure you have a flashlight with fresh batteries and a blanket, also, just in case.

Winter driving requires more of many things -- more space between you and the vehicle ahead, more attention to changeable road conditions, more attention to the speedometer, more time to get to your destination safely. Winter driving also requires less -- less speed on icy or slick roadways, less dependence on high-tech wonders to save your insurance deductible, and less trust of other drivers to drive more carefully.

The rule is simple -- go slow in ice and snow.

This article courtesy FeatureSource. Posted Jan. 2, 2007.

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