How Good Are Your Winter Driving Skills, Really?

Feb 8, 2019

Car accidents are the leading cause of weather-related deaths, according to the National Weather Service.

I don’t know about you, but after getting up at 3 a.m. for years and driving every day in all sorts of New England weather, I feel pretty confident.

But I was curious to know if my instincts are as good as I think they are. So I decided to visit the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton to get some tips.

The school offers a number of different services, and one of them involves a seven-hour winter driving course.


(Editor's note: we highly recommend you listen to this story.)

I’m with the Morning Edition team, driving along a narrow, bumpy backroad up through the White Mountains. The scenery around me is beautiful as I pass by snow-covered pines and frozen streams.

But this is not the most peaceful drive. We’re not even at the school yet, but it feels like we’re already getting a lesson in winter driving.

It’s just after a storm, and the road is packed with snow. There’s a little bit of sand, but it’s not working too well in these conditions. I’m only driving about 20 miles per hour because it is slick.

We eventually make it, and we’re greeted by Wyatt Knox, special projects director here at Team O’Neil Rally School.

Wyatt says the first step in learning how to drive in winter conditions is by putting yourself behind the wheel of a car that skids out of control.

“Find a big open safe area where it’s low pressure, and just fun and sort of creative to do it,” he says. “And just slide around and spin out, and go back and figure out what you did wrong and go back and try it again.”

So that’s what we’re going to do.

Wyatt turns us over to Travis Hanson, the director of training and operations.

Today, he’s taking us out to practice skidding in a little Ford Fiesta stick shift. I haven’t driven a stick shift in about six or seven years. So I ask Travis how he feels about replacing clutches.

I’m surprised he’s chosen this small, commuter car and not an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive SUV.

“I mean, it doesn’t really matter the driveline of the vehicle,” Travis says. “To us, we’d rather have a vehicle with winter tires, whether it's rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. This little car, this little Fiesta, it has the proper tire for the job.”

Lesson No. 1:  Good snow tires are best.

“You know, we say all season tires suck in all seasons,” Travis says.

He takes me out to what he calls a skid pad, which is really just a flat open circle of packed snow at the top of a hill.

I hop in the driver’s seat, and he directs me to drive around in circles gathering speed until the tires slip and we’re sliding.

The goal of this exercise is to learn how to control the car with the pedals instead of just relying on steering.

“We actually kind of have noticed over the last few years that the drivers that we’re training are a lot less sensitive and a lot less understanding of what you need to do with the gas and the breaks to avoid skids,” he says.

This Ford Fiesta we’re driving today is front-wheel drive. So I put a little pressure on the brakes when we begin to skid. But vehicles with rear-wheel drive might need a little bit of gas to get going when the tires slip. It’s all about weight distribution.

Travis says it’s really important to learn about how your own car works.

“Creating skids and understanding why you created skids and then how to recover from skids, that’s what we really want to figure out as drivers,” he says.

For the next exercise, Travis lines up bright orange traffic cones in a zig-zag pattern.

Now that I’ve learned how to control the car with the pedals, it’s time to try those new skills with steering too.

Travis guides me as I weave the car in and out of the cones, left and right. I’m practicing my footwork, steering and timing.

So far so good. Until .... I run over one of the cones.

Travis reminds me that it’s really important to look in the direction I want to go, rather than stare at the object I’m trying to avoid ... like a bright orange traffic cone, for example.

“Hope is bad technique, right? If you’re flying towards the snow bank and you say I hope I don’t hit that, you’re pretty much in the snow bank,” Travis says. “But if you say okay there is no snow bank, I’d like to go over there that works.”

So if that 900-pound moose jumps out in front of you, don’t stare at him. Look in the direction you want to go.

I ask Travis is there’s any situation where he still feels intimidating or worried about while driving during the winter.

Maybe other traffic is intimidating to me,” he says. “Really slippery situations when I see other people struggling to do their job behind the wheel, that makes me nervous.”

Bottom line, you might not be able to take a winter driving class, but get to know your own car and how it handles snow before you take your chances on the road.