The challenge of winter driving

I wish they had one of these Winter Driving Skills Clinics around here. I don’t know how many Iowans would think they needed it, but the ones who ended up in the ditch today might agree to take such a class.

I wouldn’t be surprised if people around here need it even more than those in Colorado, because we don’t get a lot of chances to practice driving in winter weather. We had a bad storm the third week of December, then hardly any snow until today. Yesterday, Moline (where I work, across the river in Illinois) had a low of 37 degrees, tying the record (warm low) set in 2006. And Dubuque had a record high of 55 degrees, breaking the record of 54 set in 1914.

Then this morning the rain changed to snow right before I left for work. I spent the next forty minutes driving on snow-covered roads (I saw plows on the highway heading in the opposite direction, but they hadn’t gotten to our side yet), most traffic going about 45 mph instead of the usual 70 (speed limit is 65). A few times I passed cars going only 35 or 40 mph – I hate having to pass in bad weather, because the passing lane is even more snow-covered, but I prefer not to have other cars close by either in front or behind if one of us starts skidding.

When we lived in Michigan, it snowed just about every day all winter in the area where I worked (lake effect snow). I didn’t like winter driving there either, but at least it was almost always dry snow. It didn’t stick to my windshield, and was slow to stick to the roads. In five winters, I spun out a few times (never any other cars nearby, for which I was very grateful), but the only time I was in a collision was when the other driver lost control (she hit the brake to avoid hitting some wild turkeys that were in her lane). I didn’t get to like the winter driving, but at least I knew that most of the other drivers had plenty of experience with it.

My husband grew up in Nebraska (mostly), and his father made sure he knew how to drive on bad road conditions. They practiced in empty parking lots, intentionally getting the car to skid so that he could learn to pull out of it. I didn’t learn to drive until my senior year of high school (my parents had had several accidents over the years and I was far from eager to learn to drive), and I don’t remember any winter driving – maybe I learned in the spring. (After that, I went to college, and didn’t drive a car regularly until after grad school).

I read article on winter driving skills, and remind myself about steering into a skid, but if I feel the car starting to slip I don’t have time to react rationally. I know not to overreact – hitting the brakes and trying to steer the other way – but the best I can usually manage is to do nothing – neither braking nor accelerating, and just holding the wheel steady.

I suppose I should go try to find an empty parking lot to practice sometime when it snows, instead of curling up with a good book in my nice warm house. But I sure like the idea of a nice safe “skid pad” with a skilled instructor making sure I get it right.

Instead, I just hope all the snow is gone by tomorrow.

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