Driving in winter is like walking on a wet tiled floor: one misstep and you could wind up on your backside, wondering what just happened.
For delivery drivers and sometime-delivery drivers that spend most of their time behind the counter, it is the season of high anxiety. The small pickup trucks that many rely on for the bulk of their deliveries have some handling anomalies that need to be considered seriously.
Slippery roads make any vehicle react slower to braking, accelerating, and steering inputs and you need to drive accordingly. Abrupt moves can cause a spin, or worse.
While Canadians should be used to the white stuff by now, most drivers jump into winter with two left feet.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The first thing to remember about winter driving is its unpredictability. You have to be on your toes. This means leaving more space between you and other cars in front and beside you than you might expect.
Even when roads appear dry, sand and salt residue can double stopping distances. Snow and ice can increase stopping distances by a factor of 10. It’s a good idea to get used to conditions in a deserted stretch of road or parking lot, including practicing ABS stops. Depending on what you drive, the delivery vehicle may be equipped with only rear-wheel-anti-lock systems. This is valuable for the pickup trucks so equipped, since the empty or near-empty bed can result in early rear wheel lockup. However, lightly loaded rear wheels can also slew sideways very easily, and drivers need to be extremely careful when changing directions in slippery conditions.
In addition, the constant loading and unloading of orders can change the handling and braking dynamics, so every delivery driver needs to take extra care. The way it drove on the way out to the customer may not be the way it will drive on the way back to the store. Where 4-wheel-drive is concerned, drivers need to understand that it can get you up to speed faster than two-wheel drive, but it takes at least as long for you to stop.
Even in urban conditions, ice can appear unexpectedly. Take great care when turning into a side street from a well-cleared, well-traveled main road. Though the main road may have been kept ice-free by the flow of traffic, a side street could be a skating rink. You may find yourself getting halfway through the turn before losing all traction.
Highway driving requires the same attention to following distances, with some added precautions. Snow and slush buildup can result in a noisy distraction and unnerving tugging at the steering wheel. Ignore the noise; focus on what your vehicle is telling you. Traversing the snowy barrier between lanes can also be a nervy affair; it will try to grab the front wheels and make them turn more abruptly. Taking a firm grip on the steering wheel and crossing the line at a shallow angle–not too acute–will keep the possibility of “hooking a wheel” and getting sideways to a minimum.
If you do find yourself skidding, look where you want to go–even if it means looking out the passenger window–and turn the steering wheel in that direction. At the same time, ease up on the gas–don’t lift off abruptly or jam on the brakes, as it will only make things worse–and wait for the vehicle to respond. When it does, be prepared for it to skid in the other direction like a pendulum, though to a lesser degree, and repeat the exercise until the event passes.
If you’re in a flat-out spin, looping your way down the highway, there’s little you can do. Racecar drivers are taught “when you spin, two feet in” which refers to depressing the clutch and the brake pedals. This keeps the engine running, and having all four wheels locked up under braking makes the direction the vehicle travels more predictable–in a straight line or wide arc. This makes it easier for other drivers to miss you and it will stop you fastest. And, because the engine is running, you can be on your way and out of the way of oncoming traffic quicker. If you haven’t hit anything, get on your way and take the next exit to calm down. Don’t just sit in your car in the middle of the highway. You’re likely to be hit.
By anticipating conditions, however, you should never find yourself in this position. Look ahead. If a car 200 meters ahead skids, slow down or you’re likely to do the same.
Driving downhill in slippery conditions also gives many drivers in front-wheel-drive cars trouble. Too often they feel the steering go loose because of the slippery surface, then lift off the gas abruptly. This causes the front wheels to slow and the rear of the car to step out–it wants to overtake the front–which causes the driver to hit the brakes, which worsens the condition. All this nervous activity also causes drivers behind to slow abruptly, which gives them the same problem.
The proper approach is to, one, slow down as you approach the crest of a hill and, two, once you see the road is clear, apply an even throttle that will keep your speed steady or even provide slight acceleration on the down slope. You have to be mindful of other traffic, but that’s why you approach the crest at reduced speed.
In rural driving, especially in the coldest weather, conditions can be variable in the extreme. Shaded parts of a road can have frozen patches even while sunlit areas are dry and clear. Treat them with caution.
You should also treat roadside shoulders with suspicion. Winter winds and snowplows can disguise a roadside ditch under a few feet of snow, leaving just the tops of long grasses to lure you in. Don’t be fooled.
You should never drive onto a snow-covered shoulder–to stop or make a U-turn–unless you can see clear ground. Failure to do so can leave you stranded, sunk up to your doorsills in snow. It’s a lousy way to end a peaceful country drive.
In the rare, but frightening, whiteout conditions, try to avoid stopping at the side of the road. Your chance of being hit by the next vehicle is high. You’re better off to plod along slowly until you can get to a parking lot or other safe location.
Overall, while winter can throw a sour note into your delivery schedule, being prepared and keeping your wits about you is more than half the battle.
Oh, and about that showroom floor: make sure you keep it dry.