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Winter driving in Ottawa is a very particular skill set. If you can safely operate a vehicle here, you’re pretty much ready to drive anywhere. 

And, for all the ice and snow we get, the numbers collected by the City of Ottawa show that vehicle collisions don’t actually spike much during the winter months. So overall, we seem to be holding our own on the slippery surface. That said, it’s always worth doing a quick refresher of those winter driving skills before the flurries start to fly. 

Be Winter Ready

The first thing to remember about winter driving is that you need to have the right equipment. You can’t play hockey with a pair of cleats and a baseball bat, nor can you expect your summer-ready car to perform well in the slush.

Tires

While not legally required in Ontario, the way they are in Quebec, Winter tires are a must for Ottawa winters. Unlike all-season tires, winter tires are made from high-tech rubber compounds that stay pliable when the thermostat dips below 7 degrees Celcius. These compounds allow the tire to grip even the tiniest imperfections on icy roads and could be the difference between a full stop and a rear-end collision.

Wipers and Fluid

Until such time as cars become fully autonomous, it’s going to be important that the driver can see out the front windshield. With the way Ottawa winters come at you, it’s not enough to merely clear the window before you drive away. Having a good set of winter wiper blades will enable you to remove snow and filth on the go and maintain visibility even when it seems you’re driving in a snow globe. Of course, it’s also essential that you keep an eye on your fluid throughout the season. Winter tends to be a heavy-use time of year for the washer fluid, and you don’t want to run out while on the roads. Remember always to keep a spare bottle in the trunk. You may also want to consider upgrading to a brand with de-icer in its formula. Not only will it keep the drizzle from freezing on those unusually cold days, but it will also coat the windshield to keep other bits of debris from sticking.  

Keep the Fuel Tank Topped Up

There are plenty of good reasons to keep your gas tank full in the winter. The simple reason is that if you were to become stranded, you would be able to keep the engine running to heat the vehicle while you waited for assistance. However, what many people don’t think of is the problem presented by condensation. As the gas level lowers, the empty tank space can build up condensation. In the winter, that build up can freeze, collect into icy blockages in your fuel lines, and prevent your car from starting. By topping up the gas tank regularly, or at the very least, keeping your gas level above the halfway mark, you drastically reduce the possibility of this being a problem.

Just in Case

No matter the season, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for an emergency. Be sure to keep a roadside kit in your trunk, complete with flares, pylons, and jumper cables. You also want to have non-perishable snacks, some water, and a blanket. It’s a good idea to take the water in the house with you when the car is parked, so it doesn’t freeze. Just be sure to leave it by the door, so you don’t forget it. 

Driving Tips for Winter Roads

Make Space

The most useful tip for handling your car on treacherous winter roads is to give yourself as much space as possible. Most winter collisions are caused by vehicle operators not adjusting their driving to the season. When something does go wrong, they find themselves too close to another car to be able to prevent an accident. An easy way to leave some room is by using the four-second rule. When the back of the vehicle in front of you passes a streetlight, begin counting until your car reaches that same streetlight. If it’s fewer than four seconds, ease of the accelerator and create a little more space between you.

Keep From Steering Either Over or Under

It makes sense that when your steering is not responding the way you expect it to, the risk of an accident goes way up. No matter whether your struggle is over or understeering, both will cause you to lose control on winter roads. 

Just like it sounds, oversteering is when your car turns too much relative to how you’re adjusting the wheel. It usually happens when you go into a corner too fast. Your instinct is to attempt to slow the car down. Of course, when you press on the brake too quickly, weight transfers to the front of your vehicle, and the back begins to swing-out.

To correct this, keep your foot off the brake, and gently apply pressure on the gas peddle while turning the wheel in the same direction in which the rear end is sliding. Only adjust your tire direction back into the turn when the car has started to correct itself.

On the other hand, understeering is when your vehicle is not turning enough. This problem is also usually caused by entering a corner too quickly. The difference is that with understeering, your front tires lose traction, and your car can’t continue along the curve to complete the turn. 

The trouble with understeer is there’s not much you can do to correct it while it’s happening. Do not press down on either the accelerator or the break, and resist the urge to turn harder on the wheel; doing so will only make the slide worse. To prevent understeer before it happens, begin to slow down gradually with the brake before you enter the turn. Once you’re in the corner, do not press either of the peddles. You want to allow the wheels to turn and grip the road without any braking or accelerating pressure. As you come out of the turn, gently press the gas to continue along your way. 

Know Your Brakes

Even with winter tires, the slick road surface means that braking distances are going to be longer than on dry pavement. During the winter months, you will have to begin braking sooner to come to a safe and complete stop. However, before you find yourself having to make that safe stop or even an emergency stop, get a feel for how your brakes respond on ice and snow. A great way to test this out is to take your car to an empty parking lot. Get the vehicle moving and then apply the brakes. 

Remember to always press gently on the brake pedal. Slamming on the brakes in winter conditions has a real potential of locking the tires in place, and sending the car into a slide. You also don’t need to pump the brakes. It’s been a long time since the development of anti-lock brakes, and yet this strategy from half a century ago continues to persist. Continuous, easy pressure is all you need.

Refresh Your Skills

Another great way to take your winter driving skills to the next level is to enlist in a propper skid school. Not only will you practice controlling a slide under the supervision of a trained professional, but it’s also a lot of fun! Calabogie Motorsports Park offers a winter clinic to assist Ottawa-Gatineau area drivers in upgrading their skills.

Know When to Stay Home

No matter how reliable your car is or how advanced your driving skills are, there are going to be days when you should simply stay home. Be sure always to pay close attention to the forecast and road reports. If snowmageddon is making a return and you don’t need to travel, don’t! Not everyone has outfitted their car with proper tires, or invested time learning how to control a skid. These factors are out of your control. Sometimes the best way to avoid an accident is not to be there.