By guest contributor Tami Mittan
Normally, a car sliding on snow causes panic. Here, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“Alright, Tami – you’re up! I want you to accelerate to 30 MPH as you go down this next hill, and on my mark just stomp and hold.”
My winter driving coach, Kubo, was observing safely from his vehicle parked on a side road, giving me instructions over radio communication. Although accelerating downhill on an icy stretch was a little nerve-wracking, my confidence was boosted by the Toyota Camry I was driving, outfitted with Bridgestone Blizzak tires.
I watched my speedometer reach 30 mph, while also keeping an apprehensive eye on the orange cone obstacles in the not-too-far distance ahead.
“BRAKE!” Kubo finally barks at me, and I stomped on the pedal. “Just stomp and hold… stomp and hold” he repeated.
We were learning the proper technique for braking on slippery roads when driving a car with ABS (anti-lock braking system). With that Toyota Camry and Blizzak tire combination, the stopping distance was impressively short.
This was just the first early morning driving exercise I experienced at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Attending this school, which is open to the public, was an exhilarating experience and I walked away with multiple new life-saving, driving techniques.
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At Bridgestone Winter Driving School the Point is to Drive in Snow, and Do it Well
Each winter a unique driving course is built, in the middle of a snowy, scenic 80-acre pasture high in the mountains of Colorado. At an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet in Steamboat Springs, there is no shortage of fluffy snow to use in constructing impressive safety banks alongside every curve.
The Bridgestone Winter Driving School is currently sponsored by Toyota. It is one of the oldest continually operating driving schools in the USA. It’s the only purpose-built, terrain-based school of it’s kind in North America, and has been open since 1983. Inclines, tricky turns, and banked curves offer a challenging and fun course on which to to learn driving tips, increase your confidence with winter driving, and practice accidence avoidance techniques.
I attended the full day “Second Gear” driving school program, taught by professional driving instructors with 20+ years of experience. I was amazed at how much I learned, and how much confidence I was able to build with just one day of practice on this snow and ice covered course.
In the evening they water the course to create a frozen ice layer, then allow the evening’s dusting of snow to cover it. So it is slick!
We were given the chance to drive both a front wheel drive Toyota Camry, and a four-wheel drive Toyota 4Runner. The Toyotas used for the Bridgestone Winter Driving School are all outfitted with the impressive Bridgestone Blizzak tires. These are much less clunky than snow tires I had experienced in the past. I quickly feel in love with the grip the Blizzak winter tires provide. While there were obviously some differences in driving a Toyota Camry and Toyota 4Runner, I was shocked at how well both performed on this challenging driving course.
Our goal for the day: Building our car control techniques that incorporate precision, perfection, and smoothness.
Training Headquarters and Instruction
The Bridgestone Winter Driving School training headquarters is located in the town of Steamboat Springs, and it’s where you initially report for duty.
They have a small classroom and kick things off with about an hour of instruction and tips. The beauty of this driving program is that it’s hands on, with most of your time spent behind the wheel, being coached by a professional driving instructor.
But this initial classroom session was extremely helpful. It explained the core concepts about vehicle handling and grip that we’d be testing out.
Once they whet your appetite for tearing it up on a slick driving course (or get your nerves all worked up – your mileage may vary), you shuttle out to the driving course. This location is about a 15 minute drive from town. A warming hut yurt is on site, and that’s where you’ll congregate to eat lunch. But the course is the highlight.
Interestingly, they keep the environmental impact extremely minimal here. Their agreement with the farmer who owns the property includes tight restrictions on things like not even pouring any liquids (such as coffee) into the ground; this same land is used to graze cattle in the summer.
As we approached our destination, we spotted six Toyota vehicles parked side by side, ready and waiting for our class of 12 drivers. We’d be using three Toyota Camrys to experience and learn front wheel driving techniques, and three Toyota 4Runners to learn the same while driving a four-wheel drive vehicle.
“The Grip Rule” – What To Do When You Slide
This is all I want to know. Just tell me what to do when my car slides on snow or ice.
Well, here’s the interesting foundation to your answer. There are four small patches the size of a post card on your vehicle, which handle ALL the transfer of car control to the road. That’s it. So tire grip is key. And that’s not just describing what type of tires you need.
They taught us this concept: If you understand grip, you can anticipate the behavior of your car.
There are a handful of tips to keep in mind to restore grip when you are sliding.
- Slow down if the temperature is near 32 degrees – that is when roads are the most slippery.
- Test your grip when on a straight stretch of road by applying your brakes.
- Your goal is to not exceed your “grip limit.”
- Grip is affected by weight transfer – you have more grip in back when you accelerate, and more grip in front when you brake.
They taught us the three elements of “The Grip Rule:”
- VISION: Look ahead, develop a plan, aim for a spot with more traction
- ADJUST YOUR SPEED: For the conditions, what you see and feel
- SEPARATION OF CONTROLS: Use brake OR steering, only one at a time. This is hard to do! But amazing in the way it works. They’d have us brake, then steer out of it.
We kept using these three “Grip Rule” elements all day, in each of the winter driving scenarios we practiced. They were the core of what we learned and our abilities improved in proportion to how well we applied them.
Navigating Icy Curves in the Toyota Camry
My driving partner and I started the day in a Toyota Camry. Boy was I surprised at how well it handled on the course. This is a comfortable sedan ride and it delivers excellent ABS braking and reassuring, precise handling around safety cones and, of course, around a faux wrecked car and emergency personnel…we had to try not to don’t hit them.
We ran through several braking exercises, then cornering exercises. Occasionally we would switch and let our partner drive, each of us getting a chance to be coached (via the radio) on what to do. Then they’d relay feedback on how to improve on our next attempt.
This hands-on approach was remarkably helpful. They can show you a power point about what to do with your brakes, acceleration, and steering in a certain situation (because basically, it all boils down to those three). But getting behind the wheel and feeling how the car responds takes it to a whole new level. It made our newfound knowledge truly sink in, as we watched ourselves improve with each attempt.
With expert coaching, I was gliding through icy turns and correcting an oversteer with ease in my Toyota Camry. I started to feel so comfortable and in control with this front wheel drive + Blizzak tires combination, that I hesitated to switch to the 4Runner for our next segment.
Learning Accident Avoidance in the Toyota 4Runner
But switch we did, and the four-wheel drive Toyota 4Runner did not disappoint. This has been my dream vehicle for a number of years, so I may be a bit biased. It’s a luxury, capable adventure beast that had no trouble whatsoever on the icy inclines.
After the multiple driving runs by the class, and the high-altitude sun shining down on the course, the track gets more and more slippery as the day progresses. The Toyota Camry had gained my confidence to the point where I was concerned the 4Runner wouldn’t navigate as easily around corners. Higher center of gravity, greater weight, and so on. But I was wrong. It, too, handled like a dream.
In a single day, I went from being a nervous winter driver when my car slides…. to feeling in control, as I navigated my vehicle through a snow and ice course. I can now pull out of both sliding “understeer” (or turning less sharply than is necessary) and “oversteer” (turning more sharply than is needed) situations. And perhaps even more importantly, I’ve learned valuable techniques for swerving and accidence avoidance.
I’d say that speaks highly of the program they have constructed at Bridgestone Winter Driving School.
And now I really, REALLY want a 4Runner.
Bridgestone Winter Driving School is Open to All- And Driving a Toyota Model is a Bonus!
Anyone can experience the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. It’s open to the public, and although they are often booked by employers for group sessions, they also welcome individual drivers. Some classes focus on how to drive safely in winter condition, others on performance driving techniques.
New teenage drivers are common and they have the advantage of no bad driving habits to overcome (unless you count not listening to their parents). Explains instructor Kubo, “Our teen drivers often do the best in their class, and end up outdriving the 50 year olds.” Recent graduates also include two female retirees, who were about to head out on a cross country journey in an RV.
Classes start with “First Gear,” a short midday introductory class for $299 per person, but the most popular is the full-day “Second Gear” driving school program, which costs $549 per person and includes lunch. And Toyota, as the sponsor of the school, provides all the vehicles. It might be the most fun test drive you’ve ever had.
Disclosure: I was Toyota’s guest for this drive program. Accommodations and drive program fees were provided but all the learning and fun are my own
Tami Mittan has lived in Colorado for a decade, and feels happiest when there are mountains on the horizon. She loves spending time outdoors with her husband and two kids, frequently exploring their backyard nature playground through hiking, camping, and biking. Although Tami is employed in the IT Department of a University, she’s a writer at heart and enjoys blogging at Colorado Mountain Mom about her family’s outdoor and travel adventures, and Colorado lifestyle.