Winter driving school _ humbling, but worthwhile

JOHN FLESHER Associated Press Published:

HANCOCK, Mich. (AP) -- I'm at the wheel of a Buick Park Avenue, driving about 30 mph on a snowy surface, when a sharp curve looms ahead. I tap the brake and steer leftward entering the turn. But something goes wrong. The car skids to the right and -- WHOMP -- slams into a snowbank, where it's stuck fast. Auugghh!!

Fortunately, staffers with the Keweenaw Research Center's Winter Driving School are accustomed to such miscues. Instructor Mark Osborne radios a waiting tow truck and I'm free in a jiffy, my only injury a bruised ego.

Winter driving school can be a humbling experience. Especially if you've lived in the North a long time -- 20 years, in my case -- and consider yourself reasonably competent on roads slicked with snow and ice. Courses offered at the Keweenaw center, part of Michigan Tech University, are designed to help avoid some of the common mistakes that produce fender-benders and more serious crashes. Veteran and novice drivers alike are welcome.

"Any little tip you learn could save your life," says Dave Somero of nearby Houghton, whose 15-year-old daughter, Marissa, is one of my three classmates on a recent Saturday. After slipping and sliding my way through the program, I'm a believer.

Osborne and fellow instructor Toby Kunnari started the school in the 1990s. It's a sideline; their main job is running the research center's "proving ground" -- a set of courses for test-driving vehicles with new technology and equipment.

They conduct the school on weekends from January to early March. A one-day course costs $150. A two-day program is available, the price depending on how many take part. Osborne says they try to keep classes smaller than six, so everyone gets enough attention.

Most participants are from around here -- the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan's extreme northwest, which often gets more than 200 inches of snow a year. But people have come from across the Midwest and as far away as Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Aside from Marissa, my group includes Markus Schwandt, another local who's just turning 16, and Ross Stuart, 21, a Tech student from southern Michigan who says he's never had a problem in the snow but wants to boost his skills.

We begin with a classroom presentation, where Osborne and Kunnari explain the importance of keeping vehicles properly maintained -- especially the tires. They recommend winter radials, which have cuts in the tread blocks that strengthen the hold on slippery surfaces. They offer common-sense advice such as keeping extra distance from the car ahead of you and avoiding sudden stops and turns.

But much of the discussion focuses on "grip" -- your tires' adhesion to the road. It's affected by acceleration, braking and turning, which transfer vehicle weight. Lose grip and you're out of control, careening toward a ditch or perhaps an oncoming tractor-trailer.

We go outdoors for some hands-on lessons in preserving that all-important stability. First skill to brush up on: braking, which Osborne says many drivers don't do well on slippery roads.

"I see a lot of people panic -- they slam on the brakes and lock up the wheels," he says.

He's about to see it again.

We take turns driving three vehicles, giving us a feel for front-wheel, rear-wheel and four-wheel drive systems. Each has a walkie-talkie so Osborne and Kunnari can instruct us.

On a long, flat stretch covered with hard-packed snow, I head toward a line of orange cones arranged perhaps 50 yards ahead. I reach 25 mph -- which seems a lot faster as the cones get closer. At the last possible second, Osborne barks: "Brake!"

I try "cadence" braking -- rapidly pumping and releasing the pedal to stop without going into a skid. It sort of works, although I bump lightly into a cone. Not bad, Osborne tells me, but apparently my releases weren't crisp enough and I slid a bit. Try again.

This is harder than it looks. Pity these poor youngsters following me; I hope they don't look too foolish.

Markus, the soft-spoken 16-year-old with a slight build, goes next. I watch as he bears down on the cones -- and executes the stop perfectly! "Nice job, Markus!" Osborne says.

Harrumph. The force must be strong with this one.

Over the next few hours, it becomes apparent that for all my decades of experience, I'm not much better at this stuff than my youthful counterparts. "Threshold braking" -- applying steady pressure on the pedal that produces a stop with no stomping or pumping -- requires several tries. And I'm just so-so at quickly braking and swerving around obstacles.

Later, on a circular course, comes my encounter with the snowbank. This happens during an exercise on avoiding "understeer" -- when your car doesn't go in the direction you turn because the front tires are skidding or spinning. Apparently I jerked the wheel too sharply entering the curve and hit the brake instead of simply taking my foot off the gas and letting the car slow gradually. Easier said than done. So is looking in the direction you're supposed to go instead of the direction the car is heading, which Kunnari says is essential.

On yet another course we tackle "oversteer." That's the stomach-churning experience of having the back end of your car lose traction and swerve left or right. You'll spin like a top unless you quickly regain control, which requires a counter-intuitive turn in the direction of the skid and resisting the almost overpowering urge to slam on the brake. By the time we're finished, I feel like I've just stepped off a roller coaster.

My dignity is restored as we conclude with a series of combined turns and stops and I post respectable scores. Our teachers encourage us to seek out empty parking lots or lonely back roads where we can hone our skills.

"If you don't practice what we've taught you, it won't become second nature and you'll lapse into old habits," Osborne says.

Any other advice?

"The single biggest thing I can tell anybody," he says, "is to slow down."

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Online: http://www.mtukrc.org/school.htm