Drivers learn to prevent winter disaster |

Drivers learn to prevent winter disaster

Margaret HairSteamboat Springs Pilot & TodayVail, CO Colorado
Brian Ray, AP/Steamboat Pilot & TodayDriving instructor Gary Osteen, right, gives directions to a nearby driver via radio on the course at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School near Steamboat Springs.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado As he turns the steering wheel to demonstrate what it feels like to go into a tailspin, Bridgestone Winter Driving School instructor Matthew Johnson says something that is not entirely comforting:I cant hardly see where were going.On a day when the snow hasnt slowed for at least the past 12 hours, Johnson admits that testing exaggerated versions of the skills taught in the driving schools most advanced classes isnt easy. With no class on this particular track, the roadsides arent studded with their usual Day-Glo cones.Days like this are hard for us, too, Johnson said, keeping constant control of the Toyota sport utility vehicle and staying well away from the snow banks that, at any more than 10 feet away, look just as white and nondescript as everything else.I dont have some kind of Jedi sense of where Im going, he said.In an instructional video for the daylong course, driving school director Mark Cox cautions viewers about the risks of exaggerated driving maneuvers.In a controlled environment like our school, this can be a lot of fun. But on public roads, its not something to play around with, he said.Luckily, Johnson, like all the schools driving instructors, has a good handle on these things. For his second season with the program, Johnson said hes interested in maintaining his skills in the offseason from his career as a rally racer.The 12 to 30 students that come through a variety of courses every weekday for four months in the winter stand to learn everything from braking to steering to gripping on the most precarious conditions imaginable.We pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on top of packed snow to make sure that its ice, said instructor Lea Croteau, addressing a class at the schools Ski Time Square office. So youll be driving on top of some of the most treacherous ice in the country.The idea is to learn how to handle that peril calmly and safely, in instructional classes for day-to-day situations and performance sessions for the occasional client who wants to be a race car driver.Some students take the class for work, some to get more comfortable behind the wheel, some because theyve been in an accident and want to avoid another one.Really, our school is about safety. Its about knowing whats going on before it does, Johnson said, adding that most people think about 10 feet ahead when theyre driving.You cannot have such a short game plan and live through it in the snow. It just takes so much more time for things to happen in the snow, it takes an unbelievable amount of patience and planning, he said.Becky Schmidt, a Steamboat resident, said she signed up for the course to reaffirm her winter driving skills after years of living in Florida.

Im finding that even with my background driving in Pennsylvania, I definitely needed it. Ive had so many close calls here, and Ive seen many, many accidents, Schmidt said. Most participants come from out of town, from Denver or Boulder or ski areas, and they include everyone from engineers to emergency personnel.When I show up to work, I never know whos going to be in my class, Johnson said.Students ride in pairs, switching off behind the wheel of donated and heavily advertised Toyotas. Instructors coach them through a radio, watching their every move and advising them how to correct it.Its up to us to drive their car, Johnson said.In its 25th year, the winter driving course is a succinct operation that requires extensive maintenance and training. With three tracks stretching up to a mile long, the schools facility is a series of icy curves cut into snow banks on top of a piece of Stanko Ranch.A groomer gets to the track by 4 a.m. each day to decide what needs to be done to make the best surface for sliding. Instructors are trained for first aid and possess years of teaching and driving experience. Plows run up and down the two access roads, and the course is reassessed from morning to afternoon.For all its potential for tricks, slides and scary moments, the driving school keeps a regimen that is meant to keep its students secure, Johnson said.In a land of seeming chaos, we actually have a lot of formality.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School:

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