2013 SASC Winter and Ice Driving SchoolPosted by: Kenny Chan onJanuary 30th, 2013
This weekend, the Southern Alberta Solosport Club (SASC) held their first Winter and Ice Driving School for the 2013 season and we were invited to check it out. While a winter driving school is not mandatory for one to receive their driver’s license in Canada, it really ought to be. The skills that are taught at the school through various exercises are critical for safe winter driving and even the most experienced drivers come away learning something new.
Have you ever been caught on slick roads where no matter how far you crank your steering wheel your car just wants to continue going straight? What should you do if you lose control of your vehicle? If it looks like you cannot stop in time before running into someone, what should you do? These questions and many more will be answered as you go through each of these scenarios.
The day started out with the prerequisite safety reminders for all the drivers including one that sounded a bit strange at first. We were told to not wear our seatbelts at all for the entire day. No seatbelts? What gives? As we are driving on a frozen lake, there is a possibility that one of our vehicles could break through the ice and in the event that would happen it would be far quicker to escape the vehicle without having to worry about undoing our seatbelt. Speaking of the lake, Ghost Lake is the drinking water supply for north Calgary and area. We were reminded of that constantly throughout the day–there were no washrooms.
We proceeded onto the lake in our predetermined groups and made our way to each of the stations setup by the volunteers. The first station that my group was sent to was actually the most fun and beneficial, collision avoidance. In this exercise we were told to navigate a series of cones to get used to the handling of our vehicles on the ice. After 2 or 3 sets of cones we were faced with a straight away where we were asked once again to build up some speed. At the end of the straight section was a wall of cones. At the last moment our instructor would tell us to go either to the left or right and we had to respond quickly yet smooth enough to not upset the balance of the vehicle. Immediately after the decision wall we continued navigating the cones around a wide u-turn to head back in the other direction. In this wide sweeper we were asked to take it however we thought it would be quickest. On each lap of this exercise we were told to experiment, take different lines, brake earlier, brake sooner, steer sharper, steer less, accelerate hard, etc. Each time the instructors would explain what is happening with each thing we tried and how we could use each of these strategies in the real world.
As you read this it may be difficult to imagine what the driving sensation is like on the lake. If you’ve ever hit a patch of black ice then you’ll know what the level of grip is like. We were essentially driving on a giant patch of black ice. On the day of the school there was not much snow on the lake and the sun was softening a thin layer of ice causing it to be extremely slick. There were only scattered snow drifts and small patches of snow. These patches of snow were the key to successfully completing each of the exercises we faced throughout the day and was a lesson that was repeated for use on the streets. Winter tires are designed to bite into the snow for grip and out on the lake it felt like glue every time we hit a patch of snow.
After we got comfortable with the collision avoidance on the ice, we were off to our next station, the square box. The box exercise simulated what attempting a left hand turn at any icy intersection may be like. We were asked to try different approaches such as staying wide and cutting in to reduce the turning angle, taking a tighter line requiring more steering input or simply going into the corner slower. This was a great way to get a better understanding of how each of our vehicles handled as they were all slightly different.
After a quick lunch break we were off to our next station which was the slalom. We were told to zig-zag through a set of cones as quickly as we could. On the first pass the instructor remained quiet to see how we would tackle the exercise. I drove through them steering as smoothly as I could and thought I did well but then the instructor asked me to go faster on the next attempt so I did. Suddenly the exercise became a bit more difficult and while we were driving faster it took us longer to complete because we would slide a bit more between each cone costing us valuable time. On each successive pass of the slalom the instructors would give us additional tips which greatly improved our speed through the course such as looking further ahead and steering as little as possible. We have a video of this event later on in this post if you want to see what it is like to drive on the frozen lake.
The next station we moved to wasn’t a driving exercise per se, but was a quick lesson as to what happens to your vehicle when you suddenly lose control when driving in a straight line. This is pretty much what would happen if you were driving on the street and you hit a patch of black ice. The result? If you do absolutely nothing but slam on the brakes your vehicle may spin around but its overall direction will not change due to the momentum. We repeated this several times so we were able to learn how our vehicles would react when we lost control. Remember those snow patches I mentioned earlier? They came in handy on this exercise when it came time to getting our cars pointed in the right direction again.
The last two exercises were the G-circle (an icy skidpad) and oval. The G-circle was quite simple to do but very difficult to master and be good at. It involved driving around a series of cones arranged in a giant circle. The goal was to get around the circle as quickly as we could. It was a matter of sheer grip and whichever vehicle had the best tires and smoothest driver would end up going around the fastest. This was a great way for everyone to learn the limits of their vehicles on the ice and the best way to retain maximum grip. Next up was the oval. In this exercise we were told to accelerate in a straight line then navigate the sweeping right hand turn. Again, we were told to try it at different speeds, steer more, steer less, etc to see how our vehicles would behave. This was a great exercise to prove the theory that slower is actually faster. By entering the corner at a slower speed, you are able to control the vehicle better to get it lined up to accelerate out sooner than if you entered in at a higher speed. This was extra important on this particular exercise because the corner was extremely slippery and most vehicles had trouble finding any grip.
At the end of the day we were given some time to do laps around a course the instructors had built that put all of our skills to the test. This was a great way to put everything we learned throughout the day to practice to build confidence driving on slippery surfaces. With the extra confidence, I am certain that all the participants of the SASC Winter/Ice Driving School will be the ones that remain calm when driving conditions become treacherous. The school was a great place for all of us to make mistakes crashing into harmless cones on the ice to learn the proper winter driving techniques. Out on the ice mistakes don’t cause any damage except maybe to your pride when your vehicle is perched helplessly on snow drift ;)
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