Winter driving with the ILR Winter Driving School

Now that we are deep into the winter driving season, you would think that by now drivers would have become accustomed to driving on ice and snow. Sadly this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Driving on our roads takes skill, far more than most people realize and in fact, they often take it for granted. However it takes far more skill to drive on our roads once they become covered in snow and ice. Most drivers learn these more advanced skills over time by trial and error. This is a pretty hard way to learn because our roads aren’t exactly forgiving on poor drivers. According to Sgt. Tim Burrows of Toronto Police Services, Traffic Services Division, “Winter driving requires knowledge, skills and abilities that go well beyond those that most drivers have on our roads.” There are many regions in Canada where drivers tend to be better at winter driving simply because they generally have snow covered roads far more than places like Toronto or Vancouver and by default drivers in those areas have more experience. But is trial and error on our roads the best place to learn?

Experience is key when it comes to developing winter driving skills but how does one learn these skills safely? Well, you could go to a large empty parking lot after a fresh snow fall and practice but once again, its trial and error. You may, over time, improve your skid control skills but you won’t understand how or why. There is a lot of science and physics involved and it helps if that’s explained at some point.This is where winter driving schools come into play. I recently spent some time with the ILR Winter Car Control Schoolheld in Minden, Ontario, which is one of the few schools in the country that teaches drivers how to drive on snow and ice. In fact the ice students learn to drive on is so slippery, that you can barely walk on it. Learning how to drive in such conditions is far more intensive than just ‘winging it’ in an open parking lot. This is when having a controlled environment with expert driving instructors comes into play (some of whom are ice racing champions like the school founder Ian Law).The ILR Winter Car Control School combines classroom sessions with practical exercises on the ice in your own vehicle (lets face it, that’s what you have to drive daily so learning in your own car is the best way to go). The classroom sessions discuss all the science and physics involved with winter driving, as well as proper seating positions, common road hazards, vision training, the pros and cons of ABS and how to brake on snow and ice without ABS (remember that ABS is controlled by a 25cent fuse and commonly fails) and in depth explanations about various tire types and the benefits of having proper winter tires on your car.

Then comes the practical exercises. Students are divided into groups and sent to either the skid pad (ironically named since the whole facility is essentially a skid pad), emergency braking, or to the slalom/swerve & avoid areas. Student drivers are systematically driven through each exercise again and again as their instructors hone their skills, vision and car control overall. It’s always surprising to find out how many people don’t know if their car has ABS or not but it’s not long before they find out and are taught the best way to brake accordingly. It’s also not uncommon for the ABS system to fail part way through the day, thus allowing students to learn proper threshold braking techniques. Braking in a straight line is easy and once students become accustomed to their braking systems, instructors will then get them to brake with one side of their car on the edge of a snow bank while the other side remains on smooth ice. This can be very unsettling for a driver and often a driver will over react to this and make the situation worse.

In other areas of the facility, students are run through the paces of manoeuvring their vehicles at speed through traffic cones that are setup in a slalom course, swerve & avoid and of course on the skid pad. Students are told that there’s a $10 penalty for each cone they hit. Luckily the instructors are only joking or the students would have to check their credit cards at the door. Drivers often start the exercises with a strong sense of “I can’t do this” and in the beginning they are usually right. Cones are knocked over left, right and centre as students attempt to negotiate the slalom or the swerve & avoid exercises. This is where the driving instructors get to focus on teaching students on how to not panic or over react and how to maintain smooth control of their vehicles as students ask their cars to do the seemingly impossible. “Like radios, there are good ABS systems and some not so good ones” says chief instructor Ian Law. Students quickly learn how good their ABS systems really are in the swerve & avoid exercises and the instructors show the students how to assist their ABS so that they can maintain control.

The skid pad is where drivers really get to learn how to deal with understeer and oversteer. Most cars today are designed to under steer because it makes the driver predictable to other drivers (your car will slide straight off the road) but recovering from understeer is actually very counter-intuitive.

Understeer is first and foremost a speed problem (too much speed for the corner) so a slight lift off the throttle will shift some weight to the front wheels helping them regain their grip and the vehicle will also slow slightly. The natural tendency though is for drivers to think “Oh no…I’m not turning, I need to turn the wheel more” which is the WORST thing you can do.
Turning the wheel more only increases the slip angle of the wheels and makes matters worse. Instead, you should not only slightly lift off the gas (I said slightly) and slightly un-wind the steering wheel. Like I said — very counter-intuitive. Most drivers, who don’t know better, have a tendency to turn more and slam on the brakes. This will only take your slightly un-nerving front wheel skid and turn it into a quick, scary ride straight into the ditch or guard rail.

The key is to not panic, not over react and maintain your vision. Look where you want to go (not where you’re going) and your hands will guide you there.

As the day progresses, students become more and more comfortable with how their car behaves on snow and ice while executing some extreme driving manoeuvres that are often found on our roadways. By the end of the day, the students have the skills to tackle those extreme conditions without panicking, which often make things much worse. Once done, the students return to the classroom for a wrap-up and to discuss any questions they may have and to hand out their certificates for having successfully completed the course.

Courses like this are simply invaluable, and in my humble opinion, should be mandatory across the country. Considering the very reasonable cost of the program, it’s easily the best investment you can make because you are investing into yourself and your own safety (not to mention the safety of those who may be in the car with you or other drivers on the road).

Sgt. Burrows goes on to say “While the recognition of winter driving challenges is the easy part, ie: snow covered roads, icy sections, slower speed, less traction…knowing how to respond to those situations requires skill and practice. The type of skill that doesn’t come from normal driving. Advanced driving courses offer the ability to practice in a controlled, safe environment.”

Safer roads start with safer drivers.

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