January 28, 2011 5:53 PM | By David Booth for MSN Autos

Get thee to a winter driving academy

David Booth

David Booth in The Fast Lane

Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy (© Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

Okay, now for something serious. A truly heartfelt plea from a recidivist gearhead who too often cares about the cars we drive rather than the people driving them. A call to action, if you will. Something "real" as the kids like to say.

And it doesn't get any more real than parenting. Ask any parent their number one fear in life and the almost certain response would be to lose a child prematurely to an accident or disease. Too often, said accident is of the vehicular variety and it lessens the tragedy not one little bit for parents to know that they are not the only ones to suffer such a calamity. I speak from firsthand experience; having lost a sister in an automobile accident, I can attest that my personal loss was only superceded by the anguish I could see every day in my parents' faces.

In my previous hyperbole-laced screed, I lamented the fools who take the "all season" in all-season tires as gospel. Never mind that the treads of the average all-season tire looks positively wimpy compared with the spiked knobbies that adorn a true winter tire, but most all-seasons aren't designed for temperatures below -7C and last I looked, my home of Toronto - where so many locals claim seasonal tire changes are unnecessary because the climes are so moderate - was stuck in a deep-freeze the likes of which made -7C seem balmy. In writing of the need for switching to snow tires when our roads turn into a winter wonderland, I lamented the disruption in traffic and the personal inconvenience caused when some idiot insists that his Mercedes is perfectly fine to climb the icy hill right outside my home on Steeles Avenue on his all-season 'Baldini' tires.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class (© Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

What I did not mention - and I was rightly castigated for this omission - is the safety consideration of slip-sliding away on inappropriate rubber on the highways and byways of our often snowbound country. For the record, I have always insisted that any car my son drove be equipped with winter tires come November 15th. No winter tirey, no drivey was the Booth motto (at least until his mother moved out taking the little basement troll's wheels with her) with the simple intention of giving the fruit of my loins every possible advantage on the open road. One can't prevent all the foolishness that the teenaged can muster, but you can even up the odds a little.

But, there's a second part of this safety-first message. And it's just as important as having a high-tech, ABS-equipped automobile with the latest Hakkapeliitta snow tires. We need better, more skilled drivers; drivers with more than just rudimentary parallel parking skills. That's especially true in the winter months. Being able to correctly determine when it's safe to turn left across a four-lane intersection may be enough to gain you a driver's permit but it's hardly preparation for correcting a lurid slide on an icy patch previously hidden by a layer of snow.

So, off to the Mercedes-Benz Canada's Driving Academy went my basement troll. Never mind that learning winter driving techniques in the world's most hedonistic cars is just further proof that our offspring are truly spoiled; the Driving Academy's curriculum is exemplary, a fact I can attest to since, despite my supposed expertise on all things driving I took the school a few years back as well.

Instruction at the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy (© Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

Like all such schools, Danny Kok, the Academy's chief instructor, starts with some classroom basics; proper body position (closer than most drivers think with your arms loosely bent), looking as far forward as possible (you can't avoid what you can't see) and the basics of oversteer and understeer (including, to the amazement of most of the students, the proper way to regain control). Even an old hat like yours truly benefited from Kok's knowledge; his insistence that students use the left-side dead pedal as bracing so they can loosen their death grip on the steering wheel is sound advice indeed.

Like all good teachers, however, Kok keeps the indoor instruction to a minimum. Soon we're outside in a snow-covered Ontario Place parking lot and the newbies are feeling their oats careening through the slalom and braking tests that Kok has set up to test their basic skills and get them comfortable with controlling a two-ton automobile on slippery roads.

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