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Sometimes, it’s hard to find common sense on winter roads

Published January 22, 2013
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For the winter driving season, the OPP and safety experts are always reminding motorists to slow down when road conditions deteriorate.

This simple piece of advice should be the proverbial “no-brainer” yet it always amazes me how few drivers actually heed the professionals and reduce their speed when the level of traction is reduced.

This past weekend Mother Nature blasted us with some unusual conditions especially north of the GTA. Early Sunday morning a pronounced cold front produced thunder and lightning, high winds, plummeting temperatures and very poor road conditions.

More: Are drivers ready for a speed limit increase on Highway 401?

More: The 5 most common winter driving myths

On my drive down Hwy 35 late Sunday afternoon from our Winter Driving School facility in Minden, it was obvious the plows had not been successful removing the wet snow that was now compacted into ice. From at least Minden to Bolsover on Hwy 48 the road was in very poor condition.

The temperature was minus 12 Celsius and the winds were gusting. The road surface was both black ice and hard packed snow that had a glossy sheen, which indicates clearly how slick it is. There were a few asphalt patches and some parts with loose snow and slush. Much of what looked like wet asphalt was icy. Some people call that black ice.

I kept my speed down to between 60 and 70 km/h and every once in a while a test of the brakes set off my ABS telling me how little grip there was even with my car being equipped with Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT winter tires, which are a high-tech top quality winter tire.

When you are not sure of the level of grip you may have, a simple test of applying the brakes with an ABS vehicle can tell you how much grip there is or isn’t. This test should only be done if there are no vehicles directly behind you.

As you can see from the video, there were times when I was passed by vehicles travelling at or faster than the posted speed limit. Later when it was too dark for the video cam, I was passed by an SUV pulling a trailer with two snowmobiles on it! It was crazy enough to drive any vehicle at or near the speed limit in those conditions, never mind one with a trailer!

As you may recall from previous Wheels articles, speed limits are set by the traffic engineers to standards determined by several factors. These speed limits are what is recommended for ideal conditions.

What I would like to know is, what was it about the conditions we were experiencing that day that suggested to those motorists that it is a good idea to drive at or exceed the speed limit? What was it about icy roads, freezing temperatures, gusty winds and poor visibility due to decreasing light that said it was a smart thing to drive at those speeds?

Nothing about those conditions said it was smart to drive at the speed limit or higher.

I’m sure there are some of you thinking I am a wimp for driving slower than everyone else on those roads. Some of our readers may be thinking “what are you scared of?”

Having raced cars successfully in the Ice Racing Championships for more than two decades it is not the icy or snowy roads that scare me. Driving and controlling a vehicle in those conditions is actually easy after many seasons of ice racing.

It is the other drivers and other unknowns (deer, snowmobiles etc.) that scare me. It’s the “what can I do if the other vehicle loses control” that has me driving slower. It’s not knowing what is around the next bend or over the next hill that has me driving slower on less than ideal roads. It’s from years of showing motorists at our winter schools how long stopping distances really are on ice and snow that has me driving slow on those slick roads.

Yes, I could have driven those icy roads at 80 to 100 km/h quite easily. But I also know if anything happened I would not be able to stop or get out of the way.

Yes, I could have driven as fast as the other vehicles but I knew enough not to.

Anyone can drive fast. Smart drivers know when not to!

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