AWD and Winter Driving

Last week I wrote about how winter tires will make any vehicle good for winter driving. A reader wrote in noting that I was quite dismissive of the benefits of All Wheel Drive (AWD) in winter and that a vehicle with AWD is objectively better if it has winter tires. He’s correct; however, I understated the benefits for a few reasons. In this follow-up post, I want to go over the benefits of AWD in winter driving, and then explain why I understated those benefits in my initial post.

First, let’s go over what AWD is. AWD is a feature that enables power to be sent to any of the four wheels without user intervention (this is one of the primary differentiators between AWD and four wheel drive). Direction of power can be done purely mechanically or with the control of a computer depending on the system used.

The obvious benefit is accelerating in slippery conditions. By having the ability to send power to all wheels, you are able to capitalize on the traction at all four corners of the vehicle, greatly decreasing the likelihood of getting stuck or spinning tires. This is emphasized when trying to go uphill. Note that the total amount of traction the vehicle has isn’t increased; it’s just better utilized under power.

A more subtle benefit is revealed once the vehicle is moving. If the driver maintains some amount of throttle, an AWD vehicle’s superior traction under acceleration may enable the vehicle to maintain stability when being pushed around by slush or snow; rounding a slippery corner; or powering out of a slide.

These are great benefits, so why did I understate them so severely in my original post?

My first and primary reason was to hopefully influence the conversation about what makes a vehicle good for winter driving. While a vehicle with AWD objectively has the potential to be better than one without, it can’t capitalize on that potential without winter tires. I’ve had many people comment that my truck would be awesome for winter driving without knowing what tires I have. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding, or confused prioritization, of what makes a vehicle great in winter.

I stated the second reason in my original post, albeit without explanation (emphasis added):

Four Wheel Drive (4WD or 4x4) or All Wheel Drive (AWD) [isn’t] a replacement for good tires because they don’t help with braking.

As stated above, AWD helps with distributing power to the wheels. When braking, no power is distributed to the wheels as the goal is to slow the vehicle. All vehicles have 4 wheel brakes, allowing all available traction to be utilized when combined with ABS and stability control systems. The only way to improve braking performance is to increase the amount of available traction by getting by getting better tires.

The gains in braking performance due to winter tires cannot be understated. To quote just one test, performed by Tire Rack (emphasis added):

[W]e measured the distance it took the tires to bring the Civic to a complete stop from 12 mph (20 km/h). The car’s speed was stabilized and the driver fully applied the brakes to engage the vehicle’s four-wheel disc anti-lock braking system (ABS) until the vehicle came to a complete stop.

When equipped with all-season tires, the car’s ABS engaged relatively easy and it took an average of 53.6-feet to stop the Civic. The Studless Ice & Snow tires provided more grip and actually squealed against the ice whenever the ABS activated. The Studless Ice & Snow tires brought the Civic to a stop in an average of 35.1-feet, representing a 34% improvement. Their 18.5-foot shorter stopping distance was over a car length improvement compared to the all-season tires.

Finally, my third reason is the amount of understanding and experience needed to fully reap the safety benefits of AWD. Being able to go forward is a safety benefit only in the respect of not being stuck somewhere undesirable (middle of nowhere, unsafe location, etc). Other than that, being in a non-moving vehicle is inherently safer than being in a moving vehicle.

When moving, I want to quote what I wrote above with emphasis added:

If the driver maintains some amount of throttle, an AWD vehicle’s superior traction under acceleration may enable the vehicle to maintain stability when being pushed around by slush or snow; rounding a slippery corner; or powering out of a slide.

All wheel drive’s slide prevention is notable, particularly when combined with winter tires. However, once a slide begins, unless the driver is experienced with slides and understands the benefit, maintaining throttle is the least intuitive response. The most intuitive response is to slam on the brakes, at which point the AWD system is rendered irrelevant. This incorrect response is significantly more likely, even with experienced drivers, when the slide is encountered during an evasive maneuver or while the driver is distracted, resulting in the slide being entirely unanticipated.

In conclusion, if you are regularly driving in winter conditions or you can easily afford it for the few times you are, I would highly recommend getting AWD when purchasing a new vehicle. The benefits are significant. Just make sure you also get a good set of winter tires so you can stop once you get moving and truly unlock the performance of your AWD system.

The Best Vehicle for Winter Driving

Over the course of winters past, I’ve been asked numerous times by acquaintances, friends and family whether a certain vehicle would be a good choice for driving winter roads. I want to cover the topic once and for-all with this post. I will go over what makes a vehicle good for winter driving and then go into detail about what makes winter tires different from all-season or summer tires.

Driving technique, drastically more important than the vehicle you are driving, is something I will cover in a future post.

First, I want to define what I mean by winter driving and winter roads. I’m referring to maintained roads, highways and freeways. This includes getting around town, travelling between cities (potentially over mountain passes) or going to ski hills in winter. This advice does not apply to travelling on unmaintained or remote winter roads where snow depths can become excessive.

Following from that, the road conditions I’m referring to are dry, wet, icy, slushy, compact snow or limited amounts (rough maximum of 12 inches) of fresh snow, all in cold temperatures.

With that context out of the way, let’s get into what makes a good vehicle for winter driving.

The answer is simple: any vehicle is good for winter driving if it has good winter tires.

If you read nothing else in this post, take that answer to heart. Your tires are the only things holding your vehicle to the road, so no other part of your vehicle matters more for winter driving.

Note that I didn’t mention Four Wheel Drive (4WD or 4x4) or All Wheel Drive (AWD). Neither system is a replacement for good tires because they don’t help with braking. Their benefit comes in making the car go forward and, to some extent, keeping it straight on the road.

Because of those benefits, I do recommend a vehicle with 4WD or AWD if you drive in the snow regularly, but they are by no means a requirement.

(Update: I’ve expanded on my thoughts about AWD and winter driving in my next post.)

Other factors I’ve found people regularly associate with a good winter vehicle include vehicle weight, tire size and ground clearance. Let’s run through those.

  • Vehicle weight can help somewhat with vehicle stability in snowy conditions, allowing the vehicle to push through the snow rather than be pushed around; however, the benfit isn’t nearly great enough to bias vehicle choice.
  • Larger tires only matter in extremely deep snow, a situation which I’m explicitly not covering as mentioned above.
  • Ground clearance only matters in extremely deep snow, a situation which I’m explicitly not covering as mentioned above.

So what separates a winter tire from all-season or summer tires? There are a number of factors, but the largest is the tire compound or rubber.

Rubber hardens in colder temperatures. Soft rubber has more grip, exactly what you want in slippery winter conditions. Winter tires use rubber compounds that are significantly softer than other tires so that as temperatures drop, they remain pliable and sticky. Because of this, a winter tire will have significantly more grip than an all-season or summer tire in cold temperatures even on bare, dry roads.

If softer rubber gives so much more grip, why don’t we just use winter tires year-round? Mainly because of longevity and fuel economy. Softer rubber wears significantly faster in hot temperatures and reduces fuel economy due to increased resistance to rolling. Additionally, if the rubber becomes too soft in extreme heat, it can actually have less grip than a harder rubber.

There are a couple of additional benefits to winter tires beyond tire compound:

  • Significantly increased siping. When you look at your tires, particularly winter tires, you’ll see what look like cuts across the tread blocks. These cuts are called sipes and increase the number of surfaces gripping the road.
  • Strategic packing. Snow-on-snow grip is actually quite high, so winter tires are designed to strategically pack with snow to utilize this benefit.

If you’re going to be driving in the snow this winter, or just live in a city that gets very cold, grab yourself a set of winter tires this year. The cost will be infinitely less than that of your life or someone else’s.

Put down that cellphone; distracted-driving law is here

A new distracted driving law has come into effect in Washington state, making cell-phone, or any other electronic, use while driving a primary offense (meaning you can be pulled over for it). If you drive in Washington state, take note if you’ve been using your phone while driving.

The Seattle Times has all of the details, but here are the key points:

Q. What is banned?

The law forbids all handheld uses. Not just phone calls, but composing or reading any kind of message, social media post, photograph or data.

Drivers may not use handheld devices while at a stop sign or red-light signal.

All video watching is illegal, even in a dashboard or dash-mounted device.

This is fantastic. If you are having to hold your device in order to do something, you shouldn’t be driving at the same time (including stopped at a light, where people inevitably don’t see the light turn green).

Q. What’s legal?

Common built-in electronics, including hands-free phones, satellite music and maps, are legal.

Drivers may even turn on a smartphone that’s mounted in a dashboard cradle, for limited purposes such as navigation apps, a voice-activated call, or music streaming. The new law allows the “minimal use of a finger.”

Handheld phone calls to 911 or other emergency services are legal. [...] Amateur radio equipment and citizens-band radio remain legal.

This is where this law shines. It recognizes that for many people, including myself, their cell-phone is their car’s entertainment system. By allowing for “minimal use of a finger”, my phone can be my music and navigation center, as long as it’s dash-mounted. This use is similar to someone using the factory entertainment system in their car, which has been legal since cars have had them.

I do question how enforceable this law is, but at worst it is a step in the right direction. We will see over time how effective it is.

Mt. Rainier in the distance, framed by two pickup trucks in the foreground.

Overland: WABDR Section 2

A couple of weekends ago, a buddy and myself took our trucks and went exploring in the southern Cascades. To say the trip was more than I was expecting would be an understatement.

We met up in Packwood Saturday afternoon, then headed to a secret dispersed campsite for the night. This was my first time dispersed camping so it was great to truly get away from civilization.

Camping setup. Burning campfire in the foreground. Two pickup trucks backed towards each other with tailgates down, acting as tables, and a camp table between them with a camping stove. Canopy centered between the tailgates.

Sunday morning we hit the dirt, aiming to complete Section 2 of the WABDR from Packwood to Ellensburg.

For context, the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route, or WABDR, is a route across Washington state from the Oregon border to the Canadian border, almost exclusively on dirt roads. It was originally mapped out by adventure motorcyclists, but can also be completed by ATV’s and full-size trucks. Consisting of 6 sections, the route takes about 6 days to complete if done continuously, but it’s common to do sections individually as we did with Section 2.

The first part of the drive is a climb up to Bethal Ridge. Along the way, you must traverse across the side of a mountain, with a beautiful valley below. There is one spot in particular that offers an incredible photo opportunity.

Panoramic shot with pickup truck parked near edge of cliff on the far left. Distant hill is the only thing visible for the rest of the image.

The high point of our trip (literally) is Bethal Ridge at 6200 feet of elevation, offering stunning views of the surrounding valleys and Mt. Rainier in the distance. This is the best view I’ve ever had while eating lunch.

Panoramic shot of Bethell Ridge. Rolling hills extending into the distance.

You can see the rest of the pictures in the slideshow below. This route was moderately technical, but my stock F-150 (including running boards!) with good tires was able to complete it with a bit of thoughtful tire placement and some spotting through the narrow spots.

If you do the WABDR, or any backcountry exploring, make sure you travel with a buddy or have lots of experience before venturing out alone. In the latter half of the trip we helped out someone on an adventure bike who had crashed and was struggling to re-orient his heavy bike on a steep grade. If we had not showed up, his options weren’t great as I don’t think he had communication options while he was far away from cell service.

This was arguably my first true overland adventure and I can’t wait to do more. It was revitalizing and a ton of fun.

Dangers of Texting and Driving

The CBC:

A witness says the driver of a pickup truck that collided with a church minibus in rural Texas, killing 13 people, acknowledged he had been texting while driving — highlighting the dangers of sending messages on smartphones while behind the wheel.

A stark reminder that whatever the text message may be, it is never more important than the road around you while driving. Pull over and stop if it’s urgent, or save it until your destination.

Postmortem: Nearly an Accident

Last weekend, driving back from the ski hill, I came extremely close to getting in an accident. This is a postmortem of what happened so that I can improve my driving and others can learn from my mistakes.

What Happened

I was driving a 2-lane mountain road with a speed limit of 55mph. There was a line of traffic, with me in it, going approximately 55-60mph. The roads were a bit wet, but it wasn’t actively precipitating. The temperature was well above freezing.

After going across a bridge, there was a moderately sharp right turn. I slowed to 50-55mph to make the turn but, due to the sides on the bridge, I couldn’t see around the bend. As I completed the turn, I was faced with the car in front of me making a sudden right turn onto the shoulder where there were other vehicles already stopped. That left two completely stopped cars in front of me, with the right shoulder filled with vehicles. The front-most car was stopped to make a left turn.

I emergency braked, but knew I didn’t have enough distance to stop. After seeing the shoulder filled with cars, I looked to the oncoming lane. A car was just passing the two stopped cars. Looking farther down the road I saw another oncoming vehicle, but it was still some distance away.

I took the opportunity and went into the oncoming lane, maintaining enough speed to quickly pass the two stopped cars before getting back into my lane. I didn’t get into an accident and the rest of the drive back was uneventful.

What Went Wrong

I am firmly of the belief that most accidents are avoidable, particularly with defensive driving, and this encounter was no exception. This close call should never have happened.

I generally am extremely good at driving defensively, but my judgement lapsed in this instance and I almost paid the price. These are the parts of defensive driving that I failed to follow:

  • I was driving exclusively based on the car in front of me, not the road ahead. This lead to the next two failures.
  • I was following too close for the speed I was traveling. I should have had more distance between me and the car in front of me, hopefully giving me more time to realize what was happening and come to a controlled stop.
  • I was traveling too fast for the sight lines available. Due to the bridge blocking my view of the road ahead, I should have slowed down significantly more for the turn so that I was prepared to stop if needed.

The last one is of particular importance. If I had not made that last mistake, I would have come to a quick, but controlled stop.

What Went Right

Since I didn’t end up in an accident, obviously I did some things right. In fact, I would say almost everything went right once I was in the emergency and had to react:

  • My hands immediately went to “10 and 2”. While you are supposed to drive with your hands at “10 and 2”, this is unfeasible for long drives. Instead, I drive with one hand at either “10” or “2” and the other on my knee, ready to react as they successfully did in this instance.
  • I acknowledged the stopped vehicle ahead of me, but didn’t lock my vision. Instead, I scanned for escape routes, finding one in the oncoming lane. I then focused on that escape route, allowing me to avoid the vehicle as opposed to driving into it; you always go where you look.
  • I braked successfully. As I started to look for escape routes, my foot hit the brakes. I felt ABS activate and started threshold braking. Once I had my escape route, I fully released the brake, maximizing grip when turning.
  • Once in the oncoming lane I didn’t brake again so that I could maintain speed and get back into my lane as quickly as possible.
  • I minimized the amount I turned, purposely coming close to clipping the back corner of the stopped car, but ensuring I didn’t. This contributed to my truck not feeling out of control through the entire maneuver, minimizing the risk of a slide or rollover.

As all of this happened extremely quickly, over a period of just a few seconds, these actions were instinctual. The only thing I technically did wrong was not looking in my rearview mirror before emergency braking, but I consider this a minor fault as nothing I could have seen would have changed my actions.

Lessons Learned

This was a strong reminder to always drive defensively. While the cars in front of me made similar mistakes, those mistakes would not have propagated to me if I had been driving defensively. Specifically, I should have:

  • Been looking farther down the road to be aware of the change in sightlines earlier on.
  • Lowered my speed given the reduced sightlines.
  • Maintained a greater distance to the car in front of me.

From that, a more general lesson can be learned or reinforced: always assume there is a stopped vehicle or other obstacle just beyond your line of sight and ensure your speed is low enough to be able to stop in time. Increase your line of sight by looking past the vehicle in front of you, if possible.

A large part of the reason I evaded the accident was that my instincts reacted appropriately. A reason for this is that I always practice the behavior I want to see in emergency driving in my daily driving. For example, I always take my foot off the brake when turning; have practiced hard braking in safe, snowy conditions to understand how my truck behaves at the limit; and am always looking for escape routes as I drive, just in case I need one.

Drive safe out there and remember to always drive defensively. While you may get there a few minutes slower, it’s better than risking not getting there at all.


Lane Splitting and Safety

As a driver who has never ridden a motorcycle on the street, I’ve never understood the frustration many motorcyclists show towards laws against lane splitting, so I took it upon myself to learn about the other side.

First, a quick definition. Lane Splitting (sometimes referred to as Lane Filtering) is when a motorcyclist goes between lanes of traffic moving in the same direction, usually to get through traffic jams. This is illegal in many, but not all, of the states in the United States and is legal in many places around the world.

I’ve always thought this was dangerous behavior due to the risk of a car suddenly changing lanes or, in the case of a complete standstill, a car door opening.

Over time, I’ve come across a number of videos on YouTube where motorcyclists are lane splitting, sometimes with them being ticketed. When they’re ticketed, it’s always followed up by frustration about how lane splitting is safer for a motorcyclist than sitting in traffic like a car.

I couldn’t understand how this could be the case, given the risks associated with lane splitting. A few minutes of searching showed exactly why: the risk of being rear-ended. Naturally, being rear-ended on a motorcycle is a much more severe accident than in a car. When a motorcyclist is lane splitting, they surround themselves in a cushion of slow-moving or stopped traffic, effectively eliminating the risk of being rear-ended.

New Atlas highlights a Berkely study showing the benefits:

In a recent Berkeley study undertaken with the California Highway Patrol’s assistance, 7,836 motorcycle crashes were examined closely, with some 1,163 of these crashes having occurred while the rider was lane splitting.

Riders who were splitting at the time of their accident were significantly less likely to be injured in every category than those who weren’t: 45 percent fewer head injuries, 21 percent fewer neck injuries, 32 percent fewer torso injuries, 12 percent fewer arm/leg injuries, and 55 percent fewer fatalities.

Of note, this additional safety only applies at low speeds:

The data also shows that the safest way to lane split is to travel at less than 30 mph, and less than 10 mph above the speed of the surrounding traffic. Injury rates leap up in all categories when both of these conditions are violated.

Beyond the safety benefits, lane splitting helps all traffic move faster as it minimizes the number of vehicles in the traffic jam.

If you see people supporting something, but you can’t comprehend why, a little searching can go a long ways. While I previously found lane splitting to be frustrating, I now understand the other side and would support law changes to make lane splitting legal for motorcycles under certain speeds.

The Largest Trust Experiment

Think of the times you have had to put your life in someone else’s hands; trusted them completely. How many times can you think of? A few? Maybe a dozen?

What if I told you that nearly every day you trusted your life to others?

Driving is the largest trust experiment humanity has ever conducted.

Everytime we drive our vehicles on public roads, we are piloting a multi-thousand pound, motorized, steel missile, frequently at 60+ MPH. As we do this, there are often other cars with human drivers just a few feet (sometimes inches) away and you must trust your life to the fact that they wish to avoid harm by following the rules of the road.

Of course, this experiment isn’t perfect. There are accidents every day. In fact, driving is statistically the most dangerous form of transportation. Yet, when the accident and death rates are looked at from the perspective of how many vehicles come so close together at speed every day, I consider them remarkably low.

I’ve written previously about how I believe strangers are generally good. I think modern-day driving is the perfect example of that. Of course there are some who express visible road rage and more who make mistakes due to inattention, but when compared with the sheer number of vehicles one encounters on the road, they truly are few and far between.

How The Navy SEALs Prepare For Extreme Cold Weather Survival

Indefinitely Wild has a fascinating look into the “Rewarming Drill”, performed by Navy SEALs to prepare for extreme cold weather survival:

The troops would drop their packs on the shore and march ahead fully clothed until they were neck deep in frigid water. For 12 minutes they shivered until John gave the order. With their clothes sopping, violently shaking, they emerged from the cold lake into colder air.

It’s absolutely incredible how they recover from their swim, and a true testament to the value of having the best equipment in the worst conditions:

“With a great clothing system there’s no need to carry extra layers,” John says. “It should be able to perform as a symbiotic system in the most uncompromising situations.

Daytime Running Lights

One of the biggest changes on the road for me, after moving from Canada to the US, has been the lack of daytime runing lights (DRL). In Canada and much of Europe, all vehicles are required by law to have functioning daytime running lights, whereas in the US they are merely permitted.

For those who don’t know, daytime running lights are clear or amber lights on a vehicle that are on whenever that vehicle is moving, regardless of time of day.

As a driver, I firmly believe that daytime running lights should be mandated in the US, and all countries around the world. The few possible negative effects are easily avoided, while the benefits are numerous and improve road safety for everyone.

To start, let’s look at headlights, which are better understood. Headlights serve two purposes at night:

  1. Illuminate the road ahead (and to the side to a small degree)
  2. Make your vehicle visible to others

It is the second purpose that is most frequently overlooked, and where DRL shine (pun intended). In any condition where road illumination isn’t necessary but visibility is restricted, DRL are always on, eliminating user error. These situations include rain, dawn, dusk, fog, dust and more.

Daytime running lights also provide guaranteed lighting at night, should someone forget to turn their headlights on. While automatic headlights solve this issue, many vehicles are still sold without. Multiple times since being in the US I have come close to turning in front of a car that didn’t have their headlights on at night, which prevented me from seeing them until they were much closer.

The primary arguments against daytime running lights revolve around them being too bright. If they are too bright they can cause glare and/or obscure a vehicle’s turn signals. These are valid concerns, but are easily remedied: mandate that DRL run at a lower intensity than regular headlights, which is exactly what Canada has done.

The National Highway and Traffice Safety Association (NHTSA) has performed multiple studies over the years showing no or minimal safety benefits from having daytime running lights. As a driver, I know the safety benefits I have seen on the road, as well as the level of comfort daytime running lights provide, knowing that I can see other cars on the road.