Winter Driving Tips from a Calgary Driving School

Vince L. | March 5, 2014
At Alberta Driver Education & Training Inc. we believe that even though we can't always be prepared for unpredictable weather conditions, having the proper knowledge and preparation is the key to conquering winter driving and feeling safe and confident. Remember, safe winter driving is having the knowledge and training while using it in winter driving situations.

Taking winter driving lessons from a respected calgary driving school can greatly increase your chances of being a safe and successful driver in the winter.

Winter Driving Course

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The winter driving course is for students who wish to receive training in the following areas, and is offered in the winter months:
  • Slippery and icy road conditions
  • What to do if you start sliding
  • Braking distance with ice and snow
  • Vehicle preparation for cold conditions
  • How to get unstuck
  • Proper procedure in an accident

Winter weather and winter road conditions

Know what your local weather forecast in order to prepare
Always check to see what the weather conditions are, use this knowledge to help prepare yourself for what you may see on your drive. From rain, to snow, sleet, hail, freezing rain, and cold snaps make sure to check before you leave or drive. You can do this easily by subscribing to an app or just checking your favorite weather website.

How can I preparing for my drive
If you know bad weather is approaching the best thing to do is to stay put, however if you must drive then make sure you:
  • Leave lots of time to get there. Accidents and slippery conditions always make for slow going drives.

  • Tell someone where you are going and how you plan to get there.

  • Make sure you have lots of fuel; keep at least a half tank extra.

  • Make sure you are well rested and alert while driving.

  • Always make sure you wear your seatbelt.

  • Remove all the snow from your car to avoid blow back.

  • Stay on major roads that high usage these roads will be clearest.

  • Try to check which roads have been shoveled, priority one routes get shoveled first.

  • Wear enough warm clothing in case you get stuck.

Chinooks and icy roads

All Albertans know that winter is the biggest challenge for all drivers alike. This is especially true for Calgary and surrounding areas because of Chinooks.

Chinooks can occur at any time and wind speeds can vary in short distances. Chinooks warm up the ice and snow past melting point, however the cold temperatures that follows at night and after the Chinook winds have left produce black ice, a condition that unique to Alberta's roads.

These road conditions cause countless accidents each year in Alberta and can be avoided with experience and training.

Winter storm conditions

Albertan winters can be unpredictable. Winter storms and blizzard like conditions can develop very quickly. Winter storms can catch unprepared or inexperienced drivers off guard. Knowing what to do can save lives. Furthermore winter storm conditions can make any distance of icy roads seem treacherous. Multiple accidents during winter storms may take emergency services longer. Seasoned winter motorists know that however unlikely you must be prepared to know what to do in all situations.

Preparing your car for winter driving conditions

Winter conditions in Calgary can be harsh and difficult on a vehicle's mechanical components. Being prepared and taking preventative measures can save you from a break down in the middle of winter. Many mechanical service providers offer winter or fall tune ups that prepare your vehicle specifically for winter driving conditions. The best way to get your vehicle ready for winter is to go for a winter tune up, not only does this help your car run in the cold conditions the mechanic can also help you spot problem areas that need repair before you run into snow and ice. The most important things to check up are:
  • Battery
    In the cold weather your battery needs are much higher. Batteries need to be fully charged before your starter will turn. Have your mechanic clean your battery and test it, if your battery is not operating at full capacity make sure to replace it before the cold sets in.

  • Tires
    Winter tires are always your best bet. They are a necessary and wise investment. However all tires need to be checked regularly to ensure that they are properly inflated. Often times tire pressure can vary pending on temperature it is always best to check your tire pressure in a garage or underground parking that is not heated. This will simulate the temperature outside without the wind chill. Properly inflated tires will maximize braking power and fuel efficiency; always take care to make sure your tires are in good shape.

  • Windshield Fluid and Wipers
    Use windshield wiper fluid that is designed for cold weather. Summer fluid will freeze on your windshield on cold days blocking your vision. Make sure your wipers are in good conditions, streaks on your windshield can be a hindrance and a distraction when you're driving at high speeds with low visibility.

  • Defroster
    During winter ice can build up on your windshields and condensation can fog up your windows. Make sure the heat, cooling, and defroster works in your car, without these basic features coupled with the increased moisture due to the snow on your shoes your windows will fog up quickly. If you find that they do not work properly roll down all your windows, this will equalize the air and will help bring the fog down in a hurry. Make sure your vehicle is equipped with a snow brush and an ice chipper!

  • Lights
    Lights are more important than you think, your lights and signals are your way of letting people know what you want to do and where you are. It may seem like a small problem in the day time when your headlights are out but in winter when the sun can set in the early afternoon other drivers may not see you coming. Replace any burnt out bulbs, it is an easy process and can be done in most cases at home. Remember to regularly check that your tail lights and head lights are clean and working in case of low visibility conditions.

  • Brakes
    Periodically check and service your brakes. Especially in winter when your windows are always closed and heat blasting, with all the noise it can be hard for you to hear the squealing and grinding of your brakes. Usually when you hear these noises they indicate that your brakes need service.

  • Ignition System
    As we explained above, when the weather gets cold starting your car is a much more taxing job than in the summer. In order to start your vehicle the energy stored in your battery are used to start the ignition system. Worn out wires and old spark plugs can make it difficult to start your vehicle, or may be a precursor to breakdown.

Prepare an emergency car kit:

During extremely cold days, the chance of vehicle break down or mechanical failure is increased significantly. This means that you will not be the only one who is waiting for help. During extreme cold snaps emergency services could take hours to arrive. It is very important to ensure that you have the proper gear with you while waiting. Every kit should contain:
  • Blankets for warmth
  • Brightly colored jacket in case you need to leave the vehicle
  • A candle can keep a small contained area above freezing
  • Water for consumption
  • Pylons or flares to warn incoming traffic
  • Medical kit

Having the proper tools to help yourself:

  • Small collapsible shovel should you get stuck in deep snow
  • Extra gloves and clothes to keep dry and warm
  • Bags of sand can weigh your car down increasing traction
  • Booster cables
  • Flashlight
  • Extra batteries

Skids and Slips

Winter driving can be unpredictable. Black ice and slippery road surfaces can be just around the corner at every turn. As a motorist in Calgary it is necessary to have the skills required to deal with slips and skids. All vehicles have different properties such as weight, weight distribution, tire size, etc and thus each car will handle to road differently. Only experience can help you prepare for sudden swerves, skids, and slips.

How to avoid skids
The easiest way to avoid skidding is to slow down. Skidding happens when you're travelling so fast the traction you have between tire and road surface fluctuates due to the snow and slush accumulating beneath your tires. Always leave lots of distance between you and the car ahead of you to ensure ample braking distance, and always travel at speeds that are safe for the road conditions that you are driving on.

What to do if you start skidding:
  • Relax and stay calm.
  • Don't slam on the brakes or the gas.
  • Let off of both pedals.
  • Do not counter steer abruptly.
  • Gently regain control by slightly steering in the direction you want to go.
As we mentioned before skidding is a result of driving at speeds that the traction begins to fail as snow and ice are pushed under the tire. Simply slow down and let friction bring your speed down to a controllable level and then regaining your position on the road. Never make any extreme actions with the brake, gas, and steering wheel while you are skidding in a turn or on high ways. This will lead to further loss of control.

How to avoid sliding
Sliding occurs when a vehicle needs to make a stop and suddenly applies the brakes; sometimes wheels can lock and cause the vehicle to slide much like a hockey puck in an ice rink. This can happen at all times during winter in Calgary, knowing what how to prevent sliding and what to do if you do start sliding can help you avoid fender benders and embarrassing insurance claims. Slowing down is always a good way to avoid sliding however it is equally important to slow down early. Leave lots of distance in between cars and pay attention to the brake lights ahead of you, if you need to stop suddenly make sure you are aware of this as fast as possible.

What to do if I start sliding:
  • Pump your brakes this will prevent wheel lock up.
  • Change lanes if possible.
  • Use snow banks to increase friction. (only at slow speeds)

  • There is very little you can do once you start sliding, it's all about the preventative measures you should take to avoid sliding. The key is always leave space, slow down early, and drive vehicles equipped with ABS that helps to prevent wheel lock.

Snow banks and being stuck

We have all experienced winter but how many of us have been stuck in a snow bank or snow drift. If you are from Calgary chances are that you are more than familiar with the snow piles and banks. Being stuck in Calgary is inevitability, with our sudden weather and sometimes heavy snow fall large snow drifts and banks are a common sight during winter. Of course the best way is to avoid deep snow by slowing down and choosing your parking spots carefully, however there will be times you find yourself stuck.

Here are some tips:
  • Stay cool, stay calm.
  • Engage the emergency lights.
  • Assess the situation (first where are you, are you safe, should you exit the vehicle).
  • Slowly and gently try reverse or gas to see if you can get out.
  • Try to gently "rock" the vehicle to overcome snow ruts with reverse and forward.
  • Never accelerate too hard, this will only dig deeper.

Stuck in deep snow

Sometimes it can be hard to spot deep snow, especially when the snow has just fallen. Due to the lack of contrast you might think you're seeing the road surface when really there can be many centimetres of snow that can trap a vehicle. Whenever you drive after a fresh dumping of snow make sure if possible to travel on priority one roads, this means that they are the first to get shoveled making your drive safer.

However many times the city cannot keep up with the snow and many Calgarians are forced to drive on snow covered roads. If you find an abundance of snow on the surface make sure you slow down once you hit the deep snow if you feel you will get stuck stop immediately, try to reverse in a straight line until you clear the snow. However there may be times when you have driven your vehicle into a deep snow and you cannot get out.

Usually your vehicle is high centered where the vehicle rests on top of the snow and the wheels are not making contact with the ground.

In these situations:
  • Make sure you are in a safe location before exiting the vehicle.
  • Turn on emergency lights.
  • Stay warm and dry.
  • Wear extra clothing.
  • You may have to dig yourself out.
  • First try to dig the tires out.
  • Second clear the snow from underneath the vehicle.
  • Once clear of the snow shovel a clear track out of the deep snow.
  • Never accelerate too suddenly. This will result in digging deeper or loss of control.

In the worst case scenario don't risk your life. If you really can't get out make sure you call a reputable tow truck service to come and tow you out of the deep snow. While you're waiting make sure you stay warm. Roll up all the windows to retain heat, wear enough clothing and don't lose too much body heat. Stay put in your vehicle inside it is safe and warm. If you have an emergency kit inside your vehicle, use it.
This page has some useful tips for road testing in winter conditions, but the suggestions are useful any time you drive in the winter.

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