Slip ‘n’ slide, safely | SteamboatToday.com

Back to: Explore Steamboat

Slip ‘n’ slide, safely

Winter Driving School gives students skills to stay on the road

Winter driving tips

– Instead of braking hard at the last minute, push firmly on the brakes when you’re further away from the stopping point and lighten up as you get closer.

– Keep your hands on opposite sides of the steering wheel to better handle turns.

– Avoid spinning the tires on a slippery road by accelerating gently. Eliminate wheel spin by easing off the gas.

– The brake is not always the solution. If your car starts to oversteer (the rear tires lose their grip) on a turn, gently accelerate and turn in the direction you want to go. The tires will grip again when the weight is returned to the back of the car (which can be done by accelerating)

“People see what they might be about to hit and stare at it, and they run right into it,” said driving instructor Matthew Johnson. “They can choose to look away and find a safe place to go toward.”

– Pay attention to what the car tells you – turn, accelerate or brake accordingly. “Your hands and your feet are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for, we have just to trust them,” Johnson said.

– Don’t be afraid to go sideways, if only for a second. You can steer out of it.

For hands-on winter driving lessons, contact the Bridgestone Winter Driving School at 879-6104 or 1-800-WHY-SKID, or visit http://www.winterdrive.c…

Steamboat Springs — As he turns the steering wheel to demonstrate what it feels like to go into a tailspin, Bridgestone Winter Driving School instructor Matthew Johnson says something that is not entirely comforting: — As he turns the steering wheel to demonstrate what it feels like to go into a tailspin, Bridgestone Winter Driving School instructor Matthew Johnson says something that is not entirely comforting:

— As he turns the steering wheel to demonstrate what it feels like to go into a tailspin, Bridgestone Winter Driving School instructor Matthew Johnson says something that is not entirely comforting:

“I can’t hardly see where we’re going.”

On a day when the snow hasn’t slowed for at least the past 12 hours, Johnson admits that testing exaggerated versions of the skills taught in the driving school’s most advanced classes isn’t easy. With no class on this particular track, the roadsides aren’t studded with their usual Day-Glo cones.

“Days like this are hard for us, too,” Johnson said, keeping constant control of the Toyota sport utility vehicle and staying well away from the snow banks that, at any more than 10 feet away, look just as white and nondescript as everything else.

“I don’t have some kind of Jedi sense of where I’m going,” he said.

In an instructional video for the daylong course, driving school director Mark Cox cautions viewers about the risks of exaggerated driving maneuvers.

“In a controlled environment like our school, this can be a lot of fun. But on public roads, it’s not something to play around with,” he said.

Luckily, Johnson, like all of the school’s driving instructors, has a good handle on these things. For his second season with the program, Johnson said he’s interested in keeping up his skills in the off-season from his career as a rally racer.

The 12 to 30 students that come through a variety of courses every weekday for four months in the winter stand to learn everything from braking to steering to gripping on the most precarious conditions imaginable.

“We pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on top of packed snow to make sure that it’s ice,” said instructor Lea Croteau, addressing a class at the school’s Ski Time Square office. “So you’ll be driving on top of some of the most treacherous ice in the country.”

The idea is to learn how to handle that peril calmly and safely, in instructional classes for day-to-day situations and performance sessions for the occasional client who wants to be a racecar driver.

Some students take the class for work, some to get more comfortable behind the wheel, some because they’ve been in an accident and want to avoid another one.

“Really, our school is about safety. It’s about knowing what’s going on before it does,” Johnson said, adding that most people think about 10 feet ahead when they’re driving.

“You cannot have such a short game plan and live through it in the snow. It just takes so much more time for things to happen in the snow, it takes an unbelievable amount of patience and planning,” he said.

Becky Schmidt, a Steamboat resident, said she signed up for the course to reaffirm her winter driving skills after years of living in Florida.

“I’m finding that even with my background driving in Pennsylvania, I definitely needed it. I’ve had so many close calls here, and I’ve seen many, many accidents,” Schmidt said. Most participants come from out of town, from Denver or Boulder or ski areas, and include everyone from engineers to emergency personnel.

“When I show up to work, I never know who’s going to be in my class,” Johnson said.

Students ride in pairs, switching off behind the wheel of donated – and heavily advertised – Toyotas. Instructors coach them through a radio, watching their every move and advising them how to correct it.

“It’s up to us to drive their car,” Johnson said.

In its 25th year, the winter driving course is a succinct operation that requires extensive maintenance and training. With three tracks stretching up to a mile long, the school’s facility is a series of icy curves cut into snow banks on top of a piece of Stanko Ranch.

A groomer gets to the track by 4 a.m. each day to decide what needs to be done to make the best surface for sliding. Instructors are trained for first aid and possess years of teaching and driving experience. Plows run up and down the two access roads, and the course is reassessed from morning to afternoon.

For all its potential for tricks, slides and scary moments, the driving school keeps a regiment that is meant to keep its students secure, Johnson said.

“In a land of seeming chaos, we actually have a lot of formality.”