I thought I was a good driver. I was wrong.
Over the decades my beautiful mug has graced a Colorado driver’s license, I’ve done a huge amount of snow and ice driving. From busting 2-foot drifts on December jeep trails, to white knuckle 10-hour ice epics to Jackson, Wyoming. As the old song goes: “I been every where, man.”
All that practice made me a better driver; it’s been years since I’ve had even a fender bender — but how good at it was I really?
Today my son and I took a winter driving course at Aspen Winter Driving Experience (AWDE) here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Central Colorado. I’d heard taking an AWDE course was valuable, but I was blown away at just how much I learned. More, to see our 15-year-old out there learning how not to get killed was simply awesome.
Aspen Winter Driving Experience operates at a private race track near Aspen. After parking next to AWD’s three current model Volvos (equipped with Nokian super snow tires), we met our instructors and sat down for a short whiteboard talk about car handling and safety. The instructor (a former law enforcement officer who now investigates auto accidents) started his talk with ideas about how our brains interact with the driving environment, e.g., “sensory driving.” The idea is that instead of just motoring along in a mental rut, you’re constantly taking in everything from the feel of the steering wheel to how your brake pedal feels under your foot, and reacting. The key: react the correct way and live. But you’ve got to know the correct ways to react, and you’ve got to practice.
To me the most interesting concept they taught was that a human can still outperform anti-lock brakes. After 4-wheeling with anti-locks and having some scary experiences, I’ve always suspected this was the case, but to have these guys verify it was fascinating.
The scenario works like this. In the old days (and perhaps still) we were taught to pump the brakes for stopping on slick surfaces. The pulsating action of pumping was supposed to allow enough rolling friction to keep steering control while still getting some stopping force. Anti-lock brakes simply do the same thing, only faster. The problem? Every time you pulse or pump, you not only input less braking force, but when the wheels slow they may still lock up for brief moments. Result: less steering control while braking, and longer stopping distances. (Caveat: AWDE does teach that you should try to always “straight line” brake and leave off the brake while actually turning, but mistakes are made…)
The solution is called threshold braking — the simple act of applying force to the brake peddle till you feel the anti-lock system engage or feel you’re getting close to a skid, then letting up just a hair of pressure so you’re getting a constant braking effect rather than the stuttering and lurching of anti-lock or old school pumping.
Enough classroom. We were soon out on the snow packed and icy race track for 4 hours of intense driving practice, one instructor per car with a couple of students swapping the hot seat.
Exercise one was a simple straight stop with distance markers. The difference was remarkable between jamming on the anti-lock brakes and using threshold braking. It took some practice, but I got quite a bit more dialed on having a “light foot” instead of standing on the brake like an elephant. Interestingly, during the chalk talk the instructor told us many accident victims suffer injury to their right ankle/leg/hip because they’re straight-leg panic standing on the brake when they impact — a totally unnecessary thing to do, but something that’s encouraged by anti-lock brakes.
Next, using the same traffic cone markers we did an evasive maneuver that involved a desperate swerve around an obstacle (imagine stalled semi in the fog). Here we began practicing more involved concepts such as applying throttle to weight the rear wheels and straighten out a fishtail, and how to use the correct steering input (quick in, steady out, hands at 3:00/9:00). Though most of us didn’t ace this like our race-car-driver instructor, we all improved after a number of runs.
|View from the cab during the brake exercise. You blast down through the cones and learn how to threshold brake instead of letting the anti-lock try to think for you.|
Then the fun really began. We ran a cone slalom numerous times, practicing our integration of throttle and steering, then it was the king (as far as I’m concerned) of all safety maneuvers: the shoulder drop. This exercise simulates that terrifying event when you get distracted on the highway and trap your wheels over the asphalt edge. Most untrained or inexperienced drivers do exactly the wrong thing in this situation, overreacting and wrenching the steering wheel over like they’re shoveling gravel, then finding themselves shooting across the highway into the median, getting T-boned or head-on bashed in the other lane, or barrel rolling — all with a likely end of saying hi to Saint Peter or being crippled for life. When you’re driving the secondary roads for backcountry skiing this is a particularly important thing to learn about, as shoulders are often disguised by snow that’s been flattened by a wing plow.
|You head into the cones at speed, then it’s brake, turn, brake, throttle (if you do it right). Everyone blasted a few cones. Thanks Volvo, it was fun beating on your cars and they took it well.|
After a few spins and a bit of snow berm exploration, everyone mastered the shoulder drop and made what could be “a disaster into a non-event,” as the instructors termed it.
|Heading into the chute during the braking exercise.|
After the shoulder drop it was time for our reward: timed laps around the race course, with numerous tips from the instructors on how to wring the most traction out of 4 tires on snow. That’s when I realized I had a long way to go in my skills — but I came away a better driver and now I know what to practice when I’m on those long backroad drives to my favorite winter ski descents and backcountry skiing havens.
(2015, defunct links removed, everyone feel free to leave comments with suggestions for winter driving courses.)