Sunday Drive: Driving school takes on a whole new meaning on winter ice

March 31, 2019

Who knew that there was such a thing as a “Winter Driving School?” Yes, a school that actually teaches the basics of how to dive in the winter on snow and ice, and more importantly how those conditions will affect a vehicle and its performance — no matter who the driver is.

Toyota sent me an invitation to see if I would like to attend said winter driving school. At the same time, I would get a chance to experience the all-new Toyota Rav4 and Prius all-wheel drive — on top of getting to spend a couple of days in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It didn’t take me long to make the decision to attend.

After checking out the Bridgestone school online, when would I ever have the chance again to experience any vehicle on a track that was made from ice and snow? So it was with great enthusiasm that I spent the better part of a Sunday driving out to Steamboat.

My first day of winter driving school dawned overcast and very cold with the mercury barely hitting 7 degrees. After signing the appropriate forms to be allowed to drive on an ice-covered track, we were shuttled from central Steamboat out to a large farm where each year Bridgestone creates three different tracks to be used for teaching how to drive on ice and snow.

Of course, just like any day at school, it had to start with some class time, where I was taught basic physics and how stepping on the gas would transfer weight to the rear of the car and letting go of the accelerator instead of braking would transfer weight to the front of the car.

I also learned that no matter what kind of car you are driving, there is only so much of all four tires in contact with the road or ice at any one time that can provide the grip needed to go forward, turn or even not turn, as I learned later out on the track.

After class, it was time to spend the rest of the day out enhancing the skills I had learned. Each of us was paired with another student for the first half of the day with an onboard instructor to help us with managing the ice and snow. I was lucky enough to be paired with Brenda Garduño-Garcia, western corporate communications director for Toyota.

Brenda lives in Southern California and had never seen as much snow at one time as there was in Steamboat, let alone had the chance to drive on it like I had each winter living here in Utah. Toyota provided three 2019 Rav4s and three Prius AWD sedans for us to use during our driving experience.

Brenda and I spent the first hour in the new AWD Prius. After numerous attempts at negotiating cones in a slalom-like course, along with stopping and starting on ice, I was very impressed with how the Prius handled in these extreme conditions.

The system that has been included in the new Prius does not keep the AWD system engaged all the time, as it is accomplished using electric motors on the rear wheels. These motors will work up to 43 mph and are designed to help the Prius negotiate exactly the conditions I was driving on.

The Prius would stop and start very well on the ice and handled the turns very well even on pure ice, where I had to put all that morning’s training to a test to get the vehicle to turn instead of heading straight into a snow bank. It went against everything I have ever done to not turn sharper into a turn when the Prius was not reacting and turning — in class they taught to slowly turn the tires to a straight path until grip was found and the car started to turn in the direction we intended.

As hard as that was, it worked. When I did as the instructor indicated, letting off the gas and turning more toward straight, the Prius would eventually find grip and start to turn. As hard as it was for me, it was even harder for Brenda to get the hang of it on the ice having never dealt with these kinds of situations.

Next up was some time in the Rav4 with an instructor and getting to see how it would take on the ice and snow, realizing it was a much heavier vehicle than the Prius. The Rav4 is definitely more accustomed to this type of terrain as the grip seemed to be easier to find most of the time.

However, with the extra weight, when confronted with a turn on sheer ice, it became harder to find the grip needed to get the Rav4 to turn. It required even more straightening of the tires to find that grip and get the turn started. We each had to practice the maneuver about six times before becoming somewhat proficient at finding the grip and turning the Rav4 in the direction we wanted.

It seems there is always something new to learn, even when it comes to driving, especially on ice and snow. I was thankful for the opportunity to experience just how difficult it can be to drive in winter conditions.

It made me really want to consider who is out there on the roads with me and how they would react to a slide or slip on the ice. It really comes down to leaving even more room between cars in winter conditions and slowing down and not being in a rush to get everywhere. Allow that extra time to get to your destination and keep everyone safe on the road.