The Globe and Mail: Megawheels – A Heavy Foot and Winter Don’t Mix

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A Heavy Foot and Winter Don’t Mix
By Carlos Tomas

If it makes sense to drive smoothly during winter what causes so many people to resort to the heavy hand and the heavy foot?

Late perception equals late response which equals abrupt response.

Dry roads will often excuse poor seeing habits by letting a driver squeal their way out of a crash with a last-moment swerve or stomp of the brake. But winter’s limited-traction conditions are not so forgiving to panic responses. And the restricted view from inside a vehicle, plus the camouflaged decision-making information, adds up to reduced warning of potential dangers.

Armed only with average visual skills, drivers may be ill equipped to recognize and take control of hazardous situations in time. This can result in drivers being:
•  Too slow in identifying the intended lane because ice, snow, salt or puddles conceal the guiding pavement markings;
•  Disorientated, confused, or lost due to snow-covered road signs;
•  Unable to look through the snow-covered windows of parked vehicles for pedestrians potentially crossing their path;
•  Faced with vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians or animals suddenly emerging from behind snow banks.

Drivers should retool their surveillance skills and eliminate the surprises.

Look way, way ahead. Pick the path of least resistance and best traction and have ample time to smoothly sidestep hazards with few adjustments. When lane markings disappear, pick out the rows of vehicles far in the distance.

Read the road conditions. They’re not all the same. Identify what is slippery and what is not. See the “slip and sliders” in the distance as indicators of the bad spots of the road ahead. Whenever possible, position the vehicle’s wheels on the best available traction.

See everything from way back. How can you see way up front if the vehicles ahead constantly block your view? Hint: If you can’t consistently see two or three traffic lights away you’re following much too closely. On highways continually watch the roadway at least 20 seconds in advance.

Reduce windshield splash. Position the vehicle well away from others’ wheel spray and potential icebergs and avalanches that may dislodge from roofs at high speeds. If the following distance looks like everyone else’s, double it.

Anticipate problems beyond the range of vision. In sub-zero weather always drive as if a patch of black ice awaits beyond the next bend or curve. Approach all visual blockades with less speed and be ready to sound the horn to warn anyone that may move into conflict with your vehicle.

Watch everything but the vehicle ahead. A driver’s central vision needs to be free to roam the Big Picture to retrieve information from all around. The moment the eyes drop, the vehicle ahead becomes the focus and you are tail watching. Tail watching causes tailgating.

See with peripheral vision. The vast majority of people drive oblivious to the fact that the vehicle ahead occupies most, if not all of their attention. This fixation stems mostly from fear of plowing into the vehicle ahead as a result of getting caught looking at the wrong place. Drop away and let the vehicle ahead fade into the foreground until it presents no concern.

Trust gut instincts. If you experience discomfort looking away from the vehicle ahead, take it as a sure sign you are too close to it. Drop back as far as it takes to completely dissolve the butterflies. Your peripheral vision will not let you crash.

Develop speed-reading skills. Do not fixate the eyes on anything for more than one second. If a particular detail concerns you, deal with it immediately so your eyes are free to continue their normal glance behaviour.

Practice seeing space. Nearly everyone focuses attention on obstacles. Instead, look for space. If an obstacle is moving see both spaces – one closing, and the other opening. Project into the center of the expanding space, adjusting speed if necessary. You’ll maneuver much more smoothly through traffic.

Scan intersections thoroughly. From well back, look out for anyone apt to intercept your vehicle’s path unexpectedly. Has everyone that is supposed to stop actually done so? Or do you simply assume the best and drive on and then fume when other vehicles bolt from out of the blue?

Establish visual-search patterns. For example, when turning, be certain that there is an open lane to steer into before checking for conflicts. Then rapidly cycle attention between the key areas of conflict until the way is clear to turn.

Visualize each turn’s exit before steering. Mid-turn corrections to tracking errors can prove costly. Before beginning any turn, establish a clear sightline to the turning target and avoid turning too early or too late. You’ll ensure that no pedestrians are about to run out and intercept your path.

Have the window down when turning left. On rainy nights, visibility can be so bad the intended turning path is not visible through the driver’s window. As soon as a clear opportunity approaches, lower the side window and get a clear view.

See the “other guy” as a potential spin top. Not all vehicles have the same tires. Imagine everyone out there is driving on balding all-three-season tires. Some are! Keep your distance.

Eyes up during a crisis. If despite your precautions you begin to skid you’ll detect it immediately if your eyes are on the horizon. That’s when recovery is easiest, at the start. Just look up to where you want to go.

Sound too radical? Try these techniques out and discover for yourself just how stress-free driving can be. You’ll want to drive this way all year round.