Winter driving Q&A with Scott Marshall — The Safe Driver

Winter driving on the Danforth, Toronto.
Vehicles and a pedestrian navigate downtown Toronto's roads during a snowstorm on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. Photo by Kara Dillon.

In wet, heavy spurts, accompanied by chilling cold, winter is making its presence known in the GTA.

Yet Scott Marshall, Director of Training for Young Drivers of Canada,  says every year drivers seem to be caught unprepared for navigating on snowy roads.

“For the most part people aren’t putting on winter tires, don’t have washer fluid,” says Marshall, who has been a judge on 3 seasons of Canada’s Worst Driver on Discovery Network and gives driving advice through his blog, The Safe Driver. “I would hesitate to guess right now how many drivers have a snow brush in their car.

“A lot of people belong to what I refer to as ‘the won’t happen to me club’” Marshall adds. “They watch other people slide out of control, watch them slide into the ditch and say ‘wow, look at that driver’ and meanwhile they are doing the exact same things the other driver was doing and eventually it is going to happen to them if they don’t change their driving habits.”

To help make sure it doesn’t happen to you, we spoke to Marshall about how to stay out of trouble on the roads during the winter months and what to do if you find yourself in a tricky spot.

Seven burning questions for icy, cold winter driving


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall. Photo courtesy Scott Marshall

BIST: What essentials do I need in my car for the winter months?

Marshall: You need a winter kit for your car and one for yourself. The basics for your car— a snow brush, extra washer fluid, a lock de-icer, a squeegee, because you’re not always going to be able to make your lights visible in front and back, a flash light, spare batteries outside of the flashlight because they can leak, booster cables, a shovel, a blanket and extra gloves in case your’s get wet after shovelling.

For your personal kit, you want an extra pair of socks because your socks might get wet standing in deep snow shoveling your car, plastic bags to act as an insulator and keep dry socks dry, an extra toque if it gets wet in freezing rain, non-perishable food items like a granola bar, toilet paper because when you get stuck in the snow you are still going to have to go. These are things people don’t often think about. Around Thanksgiving to Halloween I start preparing my vehicle because it might snow anytime.

BIST: What about the person who only makes short drives in the city, say to the grocery store? Do they need all the same equipment? 

Marshall: Sure because in an hour’s time you can have a foot of snow and if you are wearing running shoes in a foot of snow now your socks are frozen, your shoes are soaked. Do you want to dig out your car using your gloves? Go for it… I”d rather use a shovel. I could be going just down the street and my tail lights are uncovered, people aren’t going to notice them very well. You can get stuck on your own personal street and having those items on your car are going to help you get unstuck.

Winter driving on the Danforth, Toronto.
Scott Marshall says drivers should have two winter kits — one for their car and one for themselves — during the winter. Photo by Kara Dillon.

BIST: How much do we need to slow our cars down when it’s snowing? Does it make a difference if there’s just a light dusting of snow on the ground compared to two feet of snow?

Marshall: The same principles do apply because what you’ve lost is the friction between your tires and the road surface. In the cold your tires do lose more air pressure than in the summer, so it’s a good idea to check tire pressure with a pressure gauge each week, by doing that you’re going to get better traction.

If it’s plowed in the city you should still be able to go close to the city speed. You have to play it by ear. It’s not a black and white number and depends on a lot of variables — is the tread of the tire all season or winter, is there slush, snow, or ice? I rather drive on a plowed road than a snowy road because there is a track worn….

You should reduce speed until you feel that you still have control and don’t push that envelope. Once you think you do have control, don’t change that speed… and stay on plowed roads as much as possible.

BIST: Other than slowing down, are there other things drivers need to adjust when driving in the winter? 

Marshall: Your travel time. Leave much sooner. We know it is going to take a little longer to get there and when people take chances they speed up, they weave in and out of traffic, now mindset is on being late and trying to get on time.

Also, leave enough space…  You should leave a two second gap in the city on normal dry roads and double that distance in poor weather. Because of poor traction, you need extra time to stop.

BIST: What should drivers do when visibility is reduced?

Marshall: Anytime visibility is reduced, nighttime, snow, heavy rain… the speed needs to be reduced until you are able to see about 12 seconds in front on a city street and 20 seconds ahead on a highway.

If the conditions are so bad you cannot see and you are having difficulty driving, get into a parking lot, because if conditions are that bad, a driver behind might have a hard time seeing you at the side of the road. Pull into a parking lot, even if it’s an apartment, just get off the road until it’s fine.

BIST: I’ve applied the brakes and my car has started to slide, what do I do?

Marshall: Look straight ahead, ease off your brakes and let your wheel start to rotate. Aim into a soft spot, like someone’s lawn.

Generally people slide because they try to make a turn and they can’t. The best thing to do is to abandon the turn, otherwise the car will continue to slide. If it’s a rear-wheel car it will fishtail… if it doesn’t have anti-lock brakes, you won’t be able to steer as well. 

BIST: I’m driving along and feel like I’ve lost grip with the road. Now what?

Marshall: Don’t change anything Don’t’ change your speed, don’t change your steering, just let the car move and eventually it will regain traction.

Come off your gas, the weight transfers forward to the front wheels where you have more weight and helps to regain your traction. Let the engine reduce your speed, not your brakes. This is why you want to have an increased follow distance in poor weather. It gives you more time to try and stop.

BIST: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

By Matthew Chung, BIST member and communications committee volunteer

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One thought on “Winter driving Q&A with Scott Marshall — The Safe Driver

  1. What a great article on Winter Driving!….SLOW DOWN, LEAVE ENOUGH TIME….. GOOD STUFF TO REMEMBER ALWAYS!
    THANKS FOR THE SOLID, SMART REMINDERS!

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