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Winter driving safety: 7 misunderstood and overlooked aspects
TORONTO – Even though winter is still more than a month away, most parts of Canada have already seen significant snow.
That's had drivers in many regions scrambling to get winter tires put on their vehicles – but many experts agree that waiting for snow in the forecast before switching tires is leaving it too late.
From the true benefits of winter tires to whether raising windshield wipers on a parked vehicle actually makes a difference, CTVNews.ca is taking a look at some of the most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of winter driving.
HOW WINTER TIRES WORK
Some drivers know them as "snow tires," but winter tires actually offer a lot more than protection from storm-hit roads.
"People think you don't need them because there's no snow – but in fact … those winter tires are going to grip way better than any other tire you have," Chris Palmer, a regional trainer with Young Drivers of Canada, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
"The rubber is made from a different kind of compound that adheres to cold surfaces better. The winter tires are going to grip the road that much more significantly, stopping much more quickly."
Tire experts say the magic temperature is 7 C. Once conditions get colder than that, even tires advertised as "all-season" start to lose their grip, making winter tires drivers' best bet.
Kaitlynn Furse, director of communications for the Canadian Automobile Association of South Central Ontario, told CTVNews.ca Wednesday that winter tires can reduce a vehicle's stopping distance during cold weather by approximately two car lengths.
"That makes a pretty big difference when you're on a snowy or icy road," she said.
Drivers seem to be getting that message. A report released Tuesday by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC) finds that 75 per cent of surveyed drivers use winter tires, up from 66 per cent in 2017 and 35 per cent in 1998. Eighty per cent of those drivers said they believe using winter tires has saved them from a potentially hazardous situation.
Among the drivers who said they do not use winter tires, a slight majority said it was because they believe their all-season tires are good enough – a position supported by virtually nobody in the road safety industry.
ARE WINTER TIRES MANDATORY?
In most of Canada, drivers are not required to use winter tires.
The only full exception is Quebec, which made them mandatory in 2008. The province changed its rules this year, expanding the period in which winter tires must be used so that it now covers Dec. 1 to March 15. Drivers caught using non-winter tires can be fined up to $300.
Drivers in some parts of B.C. are required to use specific tires between Oct. 1 and April 30, although all-season tires qualify under the government's rules. The standard fine there is $121 for a passenger vehicle with improper tires.
Provinces that don't require winter tires still try to incentivise their use. Manitoba Public Insurance offers low-interest loans for winter tire purchases, while insurance companies in Ontario have to give lower premiums to drivers who have four winter tires on their vehicles by Nov. 15.
Alberta's transportation minister recently said that there are no plans to make winter tire use mandatory in that province.
The TRAC report found that Quebec has the highest take-up rate for winter tires – perhaps unsurprisingly – with 100 per cent of drivers using them, followed by the Maritimes at 91 per cent. At the other end of the scale, 59 per cent of drivers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan reported using winter tires.
The number of winter road collisions decreased slightly in Quebec after winter tires were made mandatory, as did the number of injuries and deaths caused by winter collisions.
THE ALL-WHEEL DRIVE MYTH
Palmer said all-wheel drive is often misunderstood by people who wrongly believe that it gives them better handling on icy roads, leading them to drive "way too fast" and put everyone on the road in danger.
"One of the jokes we've had for many, many years is … most of the cars you're going to see in the ditch are those with all-wheel drive," he said.
"They think because they have this system in their car, that it's just like magic … and it's not."
The main benefit of all-wheel drive in wintry conditions is that it makes it easier for vehicles to get traction when starting from a stop, Palmer said.
"What it doesn't do is help you stop faster or steer better," he added.
CLEANING THE CAR
The Greater Toronto Area was repeatedly pelted with snow this week, leaving a number of cars in states that made Palmer shake his head.
He said he saw many vehicles with their back windows, licence plates and even headlights covered by snow because the drivers had not bothered to scrape them off. Furse said this creates an obvious problem.
"If you don't clear all the snow and ice off of your vehicle, there's a chance that it can slip down and affect your visibility on your own windshield while you're driving, or it can hinder the visibility of others behind you," she said.
In addition to the potential danger posed by snow flying from a moving vehicle, not clearing off a car before taking off carries a financial cost for drivers, as heating the vehicle enough to melt the snow away requires extra fuel.
The Canada Safety Council recommends that "mirrors, all windows, and the top of your vehicle, are free of snow or frost before getting onto the road."
WHAT ABOUT WIPERS?
Windshield wipers are incredibly useful when it comes to getting snow off of a vehicle while it's in motion.
To get peak performance out of wipers, though, it's important to change the blades regularly. Palmer said most wiper blades only last for about six months before they should be replaced.
Some drivers like to raise the wiper blades off their windshield when parking their car if they expect snow or freezing rain to fall. Others don't, fearing potential damage to the wipers.
Palmer said he was taught to raise his wiper blades when he was growing up in northern Ontario, and has kept it up to this day, noting that they make the wipers more effective more quickly.
"In my experience of doing that for 25 years, I've never had a problem," he said.
PREVENTION AND PREPARATION
According to Furse, many drivers overlook certain aspects of winter tire safety, such as checking a vehicle's battery and tire pressure.
"People assume that if you put winter tires on, you're good to go – but the truth is … that you have to be maintaining that tire pressure to the manufacturer's standard throughout the winter," she said.
Tire pressure decreases as temperatures plunge. CAA recommends checking the pressure of each tire once a month.
The Canada Safety Council says it is important for drivers to have extra windshield washer fluid in their vehicle, along with a snow brush and ice scraper.
Furse suggests drivers also carry an emergency kit that includes items for staying warm, such as a blanket and gloves, and items for increasing visibility during an emergency, such as a flashlight or flares.
A newer addition to the recommended emergency kit is a spare phone charger.
"You can't call for help if you don't have a phone," Furse said.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
No matter what tires are on a vehicle and what contingency plans have been made, bad driving habits can still override the most ardent preparations.
Palmer once spent a day with tire developers at an iced-up horse track, testing various vehicles, wheels and configurations. One thing was clear: The attitude of the driver made more of a difference to safety than anything else. He sees the same thing when he's out on the roads.
"Some people have winter tires and they drive more aggressively, which is defeating the point," he said.
The Canada Safety Council notes that driving in the winter "demands extra caution." It warns drivers to keep their vehicles moving "smoothly and slowly" and be prepared for unexpected manoeuvres from other motorists.
Most important of all, Furse said, is that drivers give themselves extra time to reach their destinations.
"A lot of times we assume that we can get out on the roads as quickly as we do during the summer, but plan ahead and set that alarm early so you have time to clear off your car and get things ready," she said.
"That way you're not rushed and you can drive according to the weather conditions."