Kurt Spitzner has driving in his veins, and those veins are filled with ice. As ops manager and 13-year veteran of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat, Colorado, Spitzner makes his living teaching people how to drive with control and confidence. “It’s about managing mass through space,” he says, “and that mass responds differently when it’s cold.” Here’s how to manage the mass of your family-packed SUV.
Tires Are Everything
I can’t overstate the importance of having appropriate tires. If you can’t properly connect to the road, it doesn’t matter how advanced your traction control system is. The rubber compounds in summer tires and many all-season tires can start to lose their flexibility when the temperature drops below 45. A good rule of thumb: if you can see your breath, you should be running winter tires. Period.
Use Your Ears
When the road is wet, you’ll hear what we call the “sizzle,” which is the sound of water from your tires splashing up against the underside of the car. As the road starts to freeze up, the sizzling sound will get softer and eventually stop, but the road could still look like just a wet road.
Smooth Is Bad
Particularly on a familiar road, you may notice that the pavement suddenly feels smoother than normal. This could mean the water between all the tiny imperfections is starting to freeze up and expand to fill the gaps, making it smooth and slick.
If you have an advanced AWD system, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use it whenever the temperature drops below 45. The fuel mileage penalty is almost nothing, and it will improve performance even on nonsnowy roads. If you have an older SUV with a 4WD system that shifts into place, wait until the roads have some lubricant (at least a half-inch of snow) before engaging.
Watch Your Lights
More new cars have LED headlights and taillights. They’re great for visibility but don’t put off heat like conventional lights, which means they can quickly become covered with snow and ice. Always carry rags in your car in case you need to clear off the lights.