Winter may have been mild this year, but in parts of the U.S. and Canada, the snowfall is continuing. And as spring approaches, wet, slippery conditions continue to be a risk. And that’s when driving can at its most dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 184,000 automobile crashes is reported each year due to snowy conditions resulting in 44,000 injuries and 660 fatalities.
So, how do you prepare yourself for such an environment? How do you protect yourself if you’re driving in these conditions? We sent contributor Steve Breazeale to school — and not just any school. We sent him to Seefeld, Austria to attend Audi’s special ice-driving school. To make the challenge even more intense, we picked Steve because he’s a Southern Californian — he’s never really driven in snow or ice. And the folks in Austria put him behind the wheel of an Audi A8 4.2 TDI Quattro to learn the all-important, and mostly unforgiving rules of driving in dangerous conditions. He lived to file this report:
I was riding high when I stepped out onto the perfectly groomed ice terrain course. After all, driving around a bunch of cones on ice seemed simple enough. But just as I was thinking how awesome I’d look drifting around ina beautiful car on an ice course, I slipped and nearly fell backward. It was then that I realized this was to be like nothing I’d ever done before.
My muscle memory, hand eye coordination and concentration was about to be put to the ultimate test by intentionally inserting myself into bad driving situations and—more important—learning how to get out of them.
A car with front-wheel or back-wheel drive will not be as responsive to icy conditions as an all- wheel vehicle would be. An all-wheel drive car is designed to shift power to the front and back wheels. This is crucial when driving on ice. If your back wheels spin out behind you, your car can shift power to your front wheels, allow you to gain traction from the front and you should be able to steer your way out of trouble.
It became immediately clear to me when I was doing our first exercise (understeer) just how important having two sets of moving wheels was. The Audi A8 4.2 TDI quattro is an all wheel drive vehicle that seems fit for driving on ice. It recognizes when power is shifted to the front (like when your back slides out) and then provides more torque to the front two wheels, making a back slide less pronounced and eventually, nullifying it if desired. The car handles beautifully. It’s wide and powerful but it handles like a dream.
2. Know Your Hand Positions!
European rally champ Rolf Volland, one of our instructors, went over how to turn the wheel. Seems simple, right? Think again. The first time Rolf got into the car with me to help me execute a hairpin turn to the right — in the ice — I turned my left hand upside down, grabbed the lower part of the wheel and turned the wheel a full revolution in one movement. That was a big mistake and Rolf yelled at me immediately, saying, “THIS IS NOT A TRACTOR! USE YOUR OTHER HAND!” On my next run, my bad habit returned prompting another outburst from Rolf. “I am going to cut off that left hand if you don’t do it properly!”
When you are executing a turn while driving on ice, it is very important to know how many revolutions you have made with your hands. If you know that, then you know where your wheels are pointing.
Let’s use the back wheels sliding out example again. If you are making a left turn, turning the right hand over half of a revolution, and your back slides out you know that your wheels are still pointing left as long as you have maintained that initial turn. So your back is sliding out and all you have to do is turn back a half of a revolution (the way you came from aka counter steering) and the car should right itself. Remembering your hand positions is your key to knowing where your wheels are at so don’t lose focus!