Of the four seasons that we enjoy here in Canada, there seems to be more misconceptions and myths regarding driving in winter compared to the other three seasons. In all my years of ice racing, winter driving and teaching motorists how to drive in winter conditions, these five myths keep surfacing in discussions with drivers from all backgrounds. Many of these weird misconceptions have their roots in mid-20th century driving and are outdated. Some have origins that are unknown. Most are confusing and a few are dangerous.
1. You are safer in an AWD (All Wheel Drive) vehicle: This particular myth has been bolstered by some of the auto manufacturers who have linked their AWD technology to safety. In actual fact, AWD is a performance feature and not a safety feature. This particular technology only helps a vehicle to accelerate. It does not help a vehicle to steer any better or stop in a shorter distance. It all comes down to how much grip your tires develop. The tires on any vehicle can only develop a certain amount of grip and this is determined by the tire’s tread compound, tread design and the construction of the tire. Sending engine power through a tire will not magically make it develop more grip. In other words a rolling tire develops the same amount of grip for cornering or steering as a tire that has engine power going through it. A vehicle with AWD cannot make those tires develop more grip than what the tire was designed with.
On slippery roads, a vehicle with AWD will not have more grip than a two-wheel drive vehicle with the same tires. It will only accelerate a lot better. The AWD technology available in today’s vehicles is amazing. It can instantly and seamlessly divert engine power to the tires that have the most grip for accelerating. The down side to this technology is it can mask just how slippery the roads really are leading to driver overconfidence. A driver in a front- or rear-wheel drive will notice the tires slipping and get an idea of how little traction the road surface offers.
2. You don’t need winter tires when driving in the city: There may be less snow at times in the city but on the other hand, there have been times when the city has had more snow due to the lake effect compared to areas outside the city. Along with this, winter tires offer better grip in temperatures below 7 degrees Celsius. This includes improved grip on wet pavement, dry pavement, slush, snow and ice. Every vehicle is safer when equipped with winter tires for any winter road, city or rural. For those who refuse to install winter tires, they are probably the motorists stuck at the bottom of the hill holding up traffic when it snows. I have always used four winter tires and there have been countless times when I have had to bypass main city roads in my Volvo due to some motorist stuck at the bottom of a hill because they refused to install winter tires. Yes, you should use winter tires even in the city. Maybe that was our own Norris McDonald stuck at the bottom of those hills!
3. You only need 2 winter tires: Some motorists with either rear- or front-wheel drive feel that they only need two winter tires. Most will install them only on the driver wheels. I have actually had a motorist insist that winter tires installed only on the rear of a front wheel drive vehicle was the safest way. Installing only two winter tires can be dangerous. Putting two winter tires on the rear of a rear-wheel drive vehicle means you can get going just fine, but steering and stopping will be greatly compromised. It is the steering and stopping ability that will keep you safe. Others with front wheel drive feel they need it only on the front of their vehicle. This will allow them to get going and steer just fine. The danger comes in the rear of the vehicle having very little traction causing an imbalance in handling and the greater chance of experiencing a rear-end skid (or oversteer) leading to loss of control. As for installing only two winter tires on the rear of a front wheel drive, this setup will reduce the chance of a rear-end skid but it greatly compromises steering grip and stopping ability with only all seasons on the front. The safest is always to use four winter tires.
4. You should let your vehicle warm up before driving: This usually only wastes fuel and adds wear and tear. Modern vehicles are designed with close tolerances in the machining of their mechanical parts and really don’t need to be warmed up like vehicles of years ago. They also warm up faster and with newer and better lubricants, vehicles do not need to sit and warm up before being driven. This is especially true if you are using synthetic oils. These oils do not thicken up in cold temperatures like conventional oil and as such, they flow better in colder temperatures. Even on the coldest days, you need not idle any longer than 15 seconds before driving away. However, it is always wise not to drive “hard” until the engine is up to temperature. Driving instead of idling will also help the engine warm up sooner using less fuel and producing less pollutants.
5. If you start to skid, you should always put the vehicle in neutral: This really only applies to some rear-wheel drive vehicles. There are some skids that require the driver to actually apply the gas, such as a rear-end skid in a front-wheel or AWD vehicle. If you have put the vehicle into neutral, applying gas to recover from a rear skid will not help. Skid recovery skills are more complicated than most people realize and are specific to certain drive configurations. To recover from a rear-end skid in a rear-wheel drive vehicle is different than in a front or AWD vehicle. This blanket statement of putting the vehicle into neutral is not always true. To best learn how to recover from a skid, locate a winter driving school that will allow you to practise in your own vehicle and show you how to control the vehicle you drive.