When it comes to winter driving, you gotta get a grip.
Not necessarily a “grip,” as in getting your act together, although that helps too.
But truly, a grip on the road, a grip on the wheel and a grip on how your vehicle works.
For years, my winter driving strategy has been: stay home, stay off the roads, or let my husband drive. But that’s not always practical and I’ve found myself on some bad roads in bad storms.
Living in Colorado and being skiers, we have to drive in winter.
The Bridgestone Winter Driving School
In February, my husband and I drove on dry roads, on a strangely warm day, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to take the Second Gear class at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School.
The Second Gear class is a full-day session, a comprehensive class for first-time students. While the driving track is located out-of-town on a historic ranch, students and instructors start the morning in a classroom near the ski resort base.
Ordinarily these classes, which run seven days a week December through March, have 12 students and two instructors.
Being a bit later in the season, we were in an uncharacteristically small class – just three students and one instructor — which was a fantastic ratio. Our instructor, Lea Croteau, is a professional driver with a racing background. She is kind, patient, articulate, and supportive. She is absolutely one of the best instructors we’ve ever had, for anything.
And while I was a bit nervous about the track driving and practice, it was a blast. The motto of the school is Serious Fun. I’d have to agree.
Physical Laws Apply
When we began our classroom session, it became clear that while I’ve been driving a long time, I don’t necessarily know how to drive.
Learning to drive on ice and snow requires understanding the basic laws of physics and gravity that apply to your car.
Not to get too technical, but winter drivers get into trouble when they have to turn, or take action to avoid something. When drivers change out of a steady state of forward motion, physical laws take over.
The role of a safe driver is to anticipate how these laws of motion will impact her driving and how to manage them.
Having an effective grip on the road is a critical step.
The Grip Rule
Grip, in this case, is the car’s connection to the road.
When tires are properly inflated, a car has four postcard size patches of rubber touching the road. That’s not much.
Falling temperatures affect grip, as does road temperature. Surprisingly, we learned that roads are more slippery at 32 degrees F, than at 0 degrees F. And slippery roads equal less grip.
Other factors that impact grip include accelerating and decelerating, which transfer weight in the vehicle either to the front (when you slow down) or back (when you speed up).
We learned about oversteering (when the rear tires lose grip and the car goes into a slide) and understeering (when the front tires lose grip and the car ceases to respond).
Out at the track, we practiced getting ourselves into and out of both oversteer and understeer situations.
We practiced how to turn more effectively, by maximizing our straight line driving. I know that sounds crazy, but it is a valuable skill and helps ensure that your steering wheel is straight and your car is moving in a straight line, with more grip, as you exit a turn.
We also learned the Grip Rule.
Basic to all driving, whether in winter, spring, summer or fall, the Grip Rule has three components.
- Use your vision to anticipate turns, obstacles, and conditions. Look ahead, scan the road and be prepared. Just like skiing and mountain biking, right?
- Adjust your speed for the conditions. This is one we all know: when the conditions are bad, slow down.
- Separate controls. Separating controls means braking and steering, separately. When you brake, don’t steer. When you steer, don’t brake. This was totally new to me.
Most new cars will separate controls for you. These cars are smart, with anti-lock brake systems (ABS), traction control and more.
But what happens if these systems fail? That slim possibility, plus the need to actually learn how to drive (rather than let the car drive for us), meant that we practiced without these helpful systems.
During our afternoon session, we practiced accident avoidance.
With ABS, this is pretty straightforward, brake and steer.
Without ABS, it’s all up to you. Brake, adjust the pressure by pumping the brakes to maintain grip, release the brake to smoothly steer around the obstacle, and then reapply the brake when the car is straight again.
Do this a few times, and you really learn what it means to drive.
Who Should Go?
Our original plan with Bridgestone Winter Driving School was to take our 17-year-old son.
He drives a lot in the winter and we thought it would be a solid investment in his future. Since we couldn’t find a date when he could miss school, my husband and I took the class together. This was beneficial, because now we can discuss the concepts and reinforce what we learned.
The other student in our class was a new mom, with a 6 week old baby (who stayed home with the nanny). Since this mom will be going back to work soon, the nanny was taking the class the next day.
Bridgestone Winter Driving School has been in Steamboat for more than 30 years. According to Lea, students come from all over the country and include all types of people.
People who have to drive in bad weather, like police officers, first responders, and oil field workers, take the class. So do parents, who want to protect their families and driving enthusiasts who want to learn all they can about the art of moving a car.
But her favorite students? The ones she thinks get the most out of it? The teens.
“They are really motivated, especially those with a driving permit, because they know they have to learn these skills to get a license, or to drive their parent’s car.”
We’re sold. We’ll be back with our sons, when the school opens in December.
When You Go…
Bridgestone Winter Driving School runs from December to early March, weather permitting. Reservations are necessary, especially during holiday periods and during the height of winter. There are a variety of classes, but the Second Gear Class offers the most instruction for novices.
If you’re going to Steamboat for driving school, you might as well ski, too! One of Colorado’s favorite resorts, Steamboat has it all, and all the information is right here.
Finally, we stayed in the lovely Inn at Steamboat.
A boutique hotel, the Inn at Steamboat is a 2 minute drive from the resort base and the Bridgestone school.
With only 34 rooms, the Inn offers terrific service, including a shuttle to take you anywhere you need to go, an expanded continental breakfast (think breakfast burritos and freshly baked waffles), an outdoor pool and hot tub, exercise room and fresh cookies after skiing.
There are family suites and a condo, as well as standard 2 person guest rooms.
The Inn at Steamboat is definitely worth a look and a stay.
- Twenty Four Hours of Steamboat, March 20, 2013.
- Family Skiing At Steamboat: Make A Plan to Have Fun, January 13, 2011.
- Why My Family Loves Skiing at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, September 28, 2010.
- Billy Kidd Is My Hero, November 3, 2010.
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