I learned to drive with an early-80s Mercury Zephyr, a car that symbolized virtually everything that was wrong with the American auto industry at the time. It was rear-wheel drive, of course, and it handled like a refrigerator on a moving dolly. Because I was in high school and had to spend my money on things like beer and ski passes, decent tires were out of the question. Nevertheless, the Zephyr and I made it through numerous Colorado winters without a scratch, and that jalopy turned out to be the best driving instructor a cocky teenager could have (provided he survived the education).
Tread Lightly, Grasshopper
More than anything else, winter driving takes a soft touch. The last thing you want to do is exactly what many people end up doing: tensing up, gripping the wheel with white knuckles, and braking sharply at the first sign of slippage. If this sounds familiar, try to remember to stay loose. Your tires on the road are just like your boots on an icy sidewalk: the goal is to avoid sudden movements. Do this by anticipating changes in speed and direction and turning the wheel or applying the brakes much sooner and gentler than you normally do on dry roads. When pulling away from a stop, press the gas pedal very lightly at first — the idea is to get the wheels rolling without slipping, and the inertia of the car is greatest at first. Once you get started, gradually give it more gas (so you can make it through the light before it turns red or to prevent the monster truck behind you from rolling over your roof).
Let Off the Gas
This is the most basic rule of winter driving. If you start to slide while accelerating, simply take your foot the gas, then steer where you want the car to go. Here's why: Sliding wheels don't steer the car; they just move in the direction of the slide. Once the wheels start slipping, keeping your foot on the gas only makes them slide more. Letting off the gas allows the car to coast so the wheels can start to roll forward instead of just spinning out.
In the days before ABS brake systems, the same rule applied to "pumping" the brakes. That is, letting off the brakes intermittently so you can steer effectively while slowing down. Now brakes do the pumping for you, so the rule is to keep your foot down on the break — as gently as is safely possible — until the car slows down.
Hills and Stop Signs
As confident as I am on slick roads, I'm always particularly cautious when approaching descents and stop signs…or the worst-case scenario: a stop sign at the bottom of a hill. Going downhill is hazardous because gravity is working against you, no matter how slowly you're going. Stops signs are bad partly because Newton's first law is working against you (bodies in motion tend to stay in motion), but mostly because most people are bad snow drivers and they wait too long before breaking at stop signs. This leads to repeated sliding, which turns the last 10 or 15 yards in front of a stop sign into a skating rink. The solution for both hazards is to break early. Slow the car before you start down a hill; you're much more likely to slide if you start breaking on the way down. At stop signs, slow down 50 yards before the intersection, and then roll at an easy rate up to the stop. Don't wait until you're on that ice rink to apply the breaks.
Front-Wheel Drive vs. All-Wheel Drive
All-wheel drive cars are considerably better on slippery roads than front-wheel drive cars merely because they provide better traction during acceleration. When breaking or when steering in a coast, all-wheel drive performs no better than front-wheel drive. The benefits of all-wheel drive are most noticeable when pulling away from a stop and when turning a corner while accelerating. You're also much less likely to get stuck with all-wheel drive. The downside of all-wheel drive is that it can make you feel invincible (not to mention impatient with all the "granny" drivers and poor saps in Mercury Zephyrs sliding around in front of you). So if you want to go with a 4-by-4, just don't drive like one of those yahoos in Ford Broncos that you see off the road on nearly every trip up to the ski slopes.
Are Snow Tires Worth It?
After driving in winter for many years both with and without snow tires, I can say unequivocally that snow tires really do make a big difference. In fact, I'm a firm believer in the importance of good tires for all seasons. Consumer Reports feels the same way. (Clearly, my priorities have changed since high school. Or, rather, now I can buy beer and good tires.)