We have officially entered the dreaded “winter driving season”. As police officers, we are required to drive in all types of weather. The conditions in which we drive during the winter months can range from perfectly dry roads to rain, snow, slush, ice or any combination thereof. Here in Northern Ohio, the road conditions can change from pristine to treacherous in a very brief time.
Several years ago, my wife Mary experienced such a winter weather “quick change”. She was driving to our home in rural Medina County from the airport in Cleveland. When she left the airport, the sky was cloudy and the roads were clear. Halfway home, the winter snow machine kicked into gear. Visibility dropped to zero and the roadway disappeared into a virtual wall of white. Most of her visual reference points had disappeared. Stopping was not a viable option because she could not find what she felt would be a safe place to do so. Mary’s normal 30 minute drive quickly turned into a 2 hour “white knuckle” trek. Fortunately, Mary was able to remain calm, employ her excellent driving skills, use what visual references she could (mostly roadside mail boxes), and make use of our Jeep’s winter traction capabilities. Eventually, Mary made it home safely.
So, how do those of us who must drive in winter conditions do so safely? First of all, we must understand that as road conditions deteriorate, traction is drastically reduced. Therefore, the abilities of our vehicle to accelerate, turn and stop are seriously compromised. Of special concern is the fact that stopping distances greatly increase as grip decreases. All-wheel or four-wheel drive can help but they’re not infallible by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t help much with braking, and can actually lead to a false sense of security. In order to combat a loss of traction, we must return to the basic premise of driving in adverse conditions. SLOW down, be SMOOTH, and apply SIMPLE dynamics. One of the instructional tenets I try to impart to officers taking our driving courses is that “too much speed in the wrong place or at the wrong time WILL hurt you”. Adverse winter conditions are, without question, the “wrong place and time” to carry too much speed. If an officer does drive too fast for the conditions he or she will quickly learn about the unforgiving nature of the Laws of Physics.
Smooth inputs into the throttle, brake and steering wheel will also help to manage available grip. Remember, “garbage in = garbage out”. Harsh inputs into the controls by the driver equal negative responses from the vehicle. Smooth inputs into the controls equal smooth, controlled responses from the vehicle. Harsh inputs equate to an increased potential for loss of grip while smooth inputs will help take advantage of available grip. Braking properly is extremely critical: brake early and brake smoothly!
Winter road conditions will also require the driver to be extra aware of the concept of simple dynamic weight transfer. In other words, only ask the vehicle to do one thing at a time. Brake and accelerate in straight lines and avoid braking or accelerating while turning.
Understanding how to make corrections for a loss of grip is an important aspect of being a good law enforcement driver but, being proactive by preventing skids is even more important. Being smooth, controlling speed and asking the vehicle to do one thing at a time are critical to being proactive.
As we are all human and prone to making errors, sometimes we do become involved in skids. Remember, we cannot defeat the laws of physics. If we become involved in a skid situation and that skid becomes too severe, correcting it becomes nearly impossible, even in today’s modern vehicles equipped with Electronic Stability Control and Anti–Lock Braking capability. Electronic stability control loses much of its magic if you are driving on worn tires, drive 70 mph in a snowstorm or enter an icy corner going 20mph too fast. Anti–Lock Brakes (ABS) keep the wheels from locking up during emergency braking thereby permitting some ability to steer the car but, even with ABS, applying the brakes too hard in the wrong place, such as in an icy curve, could lead to problems due to excessive weight transfer. Also, ABS works well for the average driver but, there is some evidence that expert drivers can actually outperform ABS braking, especially on slippery pavement.
One of the major factors in controlling skids is to recognize and respond to them early. As soon as we feel the vehicle staring to skid we must react. We will react based on experience and training. The average driver will most likely, based on their experience and training, stomp on the brake pedal and hopefully attempt to steer out of the skid if necessary. ABS can help in this situation but much more experienced driver may respond differently.
Training to improve your skill and to gain an understanding of your vehicles capabilities under varying conditions are the only ways to truly become proficient at avoiding and correcting skids. Finding a safe snow covered parking lot and setting up some cones to delineate a skid course is a great way to practice skid control and correction. Work on understanding the difference between rear wheel skids, front wheel skids and all wheel skids and how each responds to your corrections. Experiment. Try turning the steering wheel into a skid and then try turning in the other direction to see which way works the best to correct the skid, you’ll find out very quickly! Learn what happens when you try different things (or nothing) with the brake or the throttle during a skid. Practice looking where you want the car to go when correcting skids.
Better yet, DriveTeam EROC offers Winter Driving Skills courses geared specifically toward police officers. We employ state of the art skid vehicles along with expert instruction. Our skid vehicles allow us to vary the amount of traction available. This allows us to change from full grip to nearly zero grip and initiate front, rear or all wheel skids, in real time, at the push of a button. Check out this course and all of our EROC courses for 2017! The goal of our staff of active and retired police officers at DriveTeam EROC is to do everything we can to provide the professional level of training to keep officers safe while doing one of the things they do the most – DRIVING.
Until Next Time: Stay Safe!
Lead Range Instructor
EROC Blue Division