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Column: Avoid spinning out on icy roads with simple preparation
Rudi Kiefer

In a Hollywood movie, last week’s winter storm would have people covered in ice and frozen solid. But that’s not real life in North Georgia. Freezing to death isn’t a likely hazard for most of us. Getting into a car crash is.

Tires produce a thin film of meltwater when they contact a layer of ice. The water separates the tires from the surface underneath, making the car behave erratically. Snow is a little easier to negotiate. If it’s deep enough, it can help provide a little traction. But it’s safest to assume that contact between the tires and the road is strongly reduced. 

On a straight open road, once the car reaches cruising speed, it’s easy to forget about the reduced traction. Trouble comes when a quick correction is necessary. The cause might be deer appearing out of nowhere, a pile-up ahead, or the clueless driver who stopped in the middle of the highway for no apparent reason. Changing course or stopping safely requires a very gentle touch on the brakes and the steering wheel to avoid losing what little ground contact there is. The fact that traffic accidents are the biggest danger in winter storms needs to be kept in mind.

One can improve the odds a bit. An ordinary household dust brush in the car is a great investment, starting at $1.00. It allows for easy removal of snow accumulating on the windshield and roof while the car is parked. During slow driving, sleet and snow tend to freeze onto the windshield. It helps enormously to have an ice-melting additive in the washer fluid to ensure clear vision.

A hazard I never see mentioned are wet disc brakes. The car sits in 100% humidity overnight. Cold brake pads and rotors accumulate a film of condensation. In the morning we drive off onto frozen roadways. At the first touch of the brakes, nothing happens for a split second. Then, pressure on the pedal cuts the film of water on the brakes, and they suddenly “bite” hard. On an icy road it can send the car into a spin. There again, gentle action is required. I like to employ the opposite driving mode that I use on mountain roads in the summer, where I brake intermittently and strongly to avoid overheating the pads. In winter storms, I keep the brakes warm and dry by braking softly and often. 

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears weekends and at