independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Cold facts of driving in the snow

There's bound to be a freeze this winter, and Martin Brennan is keen to prepare by testing his advanced driving skills

Recently I sped around a sharp bend and shot off the road. And 30 seconds later I experienced a 360-degree skid, slewed across a grass verge and was heading down a steep incline just 30 yards away.

No, I was not intoxicated, was not hurt and did not collect any penalty points.

In fact I was learning how to improve my driving. The most frightening part of the experience was how little I knew about dealing with the hazards of driving on water, frost and snow.

The location was a roadway in the grounds of Rally School Ireland at Scotstown, Co Monaghan, with driving expert David Smyth, the managing director, sitting beside me in a high-powered BMW car.

This is where BMW runs special advanced driving courses to improve the skills of drivers of their 3 and 5 Series, and even high-powered M3 coupe models.

My visit here was to pit myself against the worst that nature can throw at motorists as I was engaged in the winter driver training programme. I got behind the wheel of a specially prepared car which creates, with frightening reality, the worst skid situations, even at low speeds. Road surfaces are also specially created, luckily with generous grass margins, to allow for the initial instinctive reaction to brake as one loses control of the vehicle.

An initial briefing and a fun element of skidding at will to get the feel of the car was soon over and it was time to get down to the serious business of learning how to stay out of trouble when driving on treacherous roads. It was reassuring to be in the company of an instructor as unflappable as David, who never winced at the initial mistakes such as turning the steering wheel left when trying to correct a right- hand skid. Turn into the skid seems a frightening prospect on a narrow road, but it works.

As well as learning to brace yourself and steer into a skid, there is lots of good advice from David to keep on the road.

• Do not brake during a turn – only when going in a straight line.

• Increase stopping distance – even in good weather there should be 40m (10 car lengths) between you and the car ahead. This should increase to 60m in wet conditions.

• Drive in a low gear going downhill to avoid braking.

• Check that tyres have plenty of thread – below 3mm is not good enough for winter/wet conditions. Pressure check essential.

• Reverse into driveways and parking spaces – driving out forward gives better visibility moving into traffic.

• A car travelling at 120kmh stops in 107m in dry conditions but takes 172m in the wet.

• Always carry de-icer. Clear all windows and mirrors before moving off.

• Remove all snow from your vehicle before commencing your journey. Snow left on the roof will become loose and can drop on to the windscreen during braking, causing sudden and severe restriction to your vision.

• Remember, it can take up to 10 times longer to stop in icy conditions.

• During the dark, wet evenings and mornings, use dipped headlights to improve visibility.

David recommends an investment in winter tyres which give vastly improved grip, especially at temperatures below seven degrees.

Driving cars with anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and Traction Control with Brake Assist (BA) will make driving much safer.

His advice is: "Keep your distance so you do not have to indulge in sudden braking, and drive smoothly in a high gear when ice is about.

"Black ice is hard to detect – but you will know it is there if suddenly you cannot hear any tyre noise."

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