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Shift Into Winter With These Driving Essentials

By Graham Heeps

We all know the refrain: “drive to conditions.” It especially applies in winter, but what does it really mean? We tapped into the vast expertise of Ryan Lemont, AMA Driver Education manager, to compile some essential rules for safely navigating winter weather in Alberta.

Prep your vehicle

Winter driving starts before you even head out on a road trip into the mountains. Prepare your ride by getting an oil change and a battery test, both of which will keep the engine cranking when the temperature drops. Winter tires offer the safest performance at or below 7 C, so swap out those all-seasons, or consider using all-weather tires with the three-peak mountain/snowflake symbol for year-round performance.

You never know when you might get stuck, so fill up on gas before your trip. Always keep a fully stocked emergency kit in the vehicle and check that your AMA membership is up-to-date. And when travelling alone, be sure to let somebody know your route before you leave.

Ease into winter driving

Take a cautious approach to your first drive of the season, especially if you’ve switched vehicles since last winter. “Get a feel for it when the snow hits to see how your vehicle reacts,” Lemont suggests. “You don’t have to drive to the speed limit right away. Ease in gradually until you’re confident in your driving skills.” New drivers should consider taking lessons in the winter—learning to drive on snow-covered Alberta roads means you’ll be prepared for any season!

Licensed drivers might also want to brush up. “Our winter driving courses focus on your driving style and habits,” Lemont says. “When winter comes, it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper and refresh some of those driving skills with our skilled and experienced instructors.” These helpful refresher courses are available online from $50, while a two-hour on-road session with an instructor is priced from $199. Learn more at

See and be seen

Before leaving home, make sure you clear snow from your vehicle and check for ice buildup on the windshield and mirrors. Staying visible to other drivers is just as important as your own ability to see others, so clear any debris from your headlights and taillights. Turn on your lights if visibility deteriorates to ensure other drivers see you coming.

Slow and steady

Vehicles don’t respond as quickly or accurately on a slippery surface, so slow down and leave more space. In ideal conditions, a safe following distance would be about 2-4 seconds from the car in front of you. In snow, ice or sleet, double or triple the distance to 4, 6 or more seconds. If you encounter emergency vehicles working on the roadside, increase your following distance even more to allow for unexpected braking. Lemont recommends scanning the road for hazards about 12 to 15 seconds ahead.

Threshold braking is an important winter safety technique—applying brake pressure to the point just before your anti-lock braking system (ABS) kicks in. Keep in mind that gentle braking, throttle and steering inputs help you retain control when grip is low and the car is less amenable to carrying out two operations at once. Beware too, that driver-assistance (ADAS) systems may be compromised by sensors and road markings obscured by snow or slush. When in doubt, slow down, keep distance and stay focused on the road ahead.