Back to Driving School, Willingly: Hold the Ice

Eric Anderson, MD

The medical profession is, arguably, the only one that requires or encourages its members to go back to school. But there are schools out there that may be more fun and equally useful: driving schools.

Photography by the author

The medical profession is, arguably, the only one that requires or encourages its members to go back to school. Certainly certified family physicians face that ordeal every few years. But there are schools out there that may be more fun and equally useful: driving schools. Several exist.

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Instruction for those who think their skills equal those of stunt drivers or defensive drivers for millionaires (they don’t). For those living in the Snow Belt who have seen everything Mother Nature can throw at them (they haven’t). For those with 4WD vehicles who can handle type of terrain in their own vehicles (they can’t). For those who believe they might have made it at the Indy 500 (they wouldn’t).

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So here is the first school where you find reality — where I found shortcomings as a car journalist despite being a member of the Motor Press Guild.

The Bridgestone Winter Driving School.

Mark Cox, the chief instructor in Steamboat Springs, Colo. is teaching his visitors winter driving can be a new pastime. For Southerners what he teaches this winter can be more than fun — it can be life-saving.

Bridgestone has advice not unlike that of the Range Rover School. First, adjust your speed to conditions.

“Less is more,” says Cox. “If you don’t understand that, there won’t be miracles.”

On ice things happen slowly so drivers have to be patient with any correction they make. If they don’t give it time, they over-correct.

Second, in winter, separate the use of the three controls, braking, steering and acceleration.

“And remember, maintaining directional control takes priority over stopping,” Cox says.

The young students look around the small classroom and smirk impatiently at each other — this is going to be easy! I’m not so sure. Breaking winter cornering down into its three components opposes all I was taught at summer racing school. Clearly I’ll have to unlearn what made sense then for dry asphalt.

The lesson continues with blackboard and video demonstrations of under- and over-steering and explanations of proper winter driving.

Some of the advice is basic and immediately makes sense:

  • Use headlights
  • Avoid bulky clothing and gloves that restrict road feel and driver movements
  • Wear high-quality sunglasses
  • Turn down the hot air to keep your head clear
  • Fasten your safety belt — it connects to your car so you feel what’s happening
  • Hold the wheel with your hands at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions for maximum control — it gives you a mental record of where your wheels are, so don’t let the steering wheel spin
  • As road conditions change, test your brakes — gently

The main message keeps coming through.

Going Off the Road in Style

“The typical mistake is carrying too much speed in corners,” says Cox, “and the result? ‘.’”

The driving school, the only one of its kind in North America, was founded in the winter of 1983-84 and has seen enough student slip-ups to know where the errors lie.

“The classic problem is that students constantly overestimate the car’s ability or their own,” says Morgan Kavanaugh, one of Cox’s young professional instructors. “The best students we get are women and kids aged 16 to 17 years old — they listen and learn the easiest.”

“Who are the worst students?” asks a brave voice from the back.

“Any American male my age,” Kavanaugh replies with a grin.

We’re practicing now in all the vehicles at the school: front wheel, rear wheel or four wheel drive, sedans, vans and sports utilities. Many have Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, not surprising since the school is sponsored by Bridgestone. A ride on Blizzaks converts the doubtful amongst us — the times we make are always better on the vehicles with those special tires.

cadence braking

We start with in cars that don’t have antilock brakes: We charge down a snow-covered slope at 30 mph then stomp on the brakes, pumping hard and reaching wheel lock every time. We note with some dismay how far we’ve traveled before stopping.

controlling over-steer

Next comes : We tear around an icy corner, protected by embankments of snow, accelerate then lift off. When our tail starts to come round in a skid, we steer into it and accelerate gently out of trouble.

under-steer

Now comes working with . The problem arrives readily.

“The cure is to back off the accelerator-and straighten the wheel more, an uncomfortable thing to do on corners,” says Cox. “But it’s a bad instinct to accelerate on a bend, steer too much then hit the brakes.”

He demonstrates and makes his point emerging from the drift saying, “At some point the only correction left is screaming!”

“Again what’s the difference between the two?” asks a student.

“Under-steer’s when the car doesn’t turn,” says Cox. “Over-steer’s when your rear comes round to bite you. In over-steer the passenger’s scared; in under-steer it’s the driver.”

We end putting it all together by racing in rotation against the clock. The clock wins but we’re tired and happy.

“We’re teaching you to respond not react to problems, but you must practice so things happen by second nature — as when you touch a hot stove or step on a tack. Right?” Kavanaugh asks a student.

“I dunno. When I do that I panic,” the student replies and disappears in a volley of snowballs.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician’s Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He is a long time member of the Motor Press Guild, the largest automotive media association in North America. He has also written five books, the last called