Originally published January 23, 2015 on Autos.ca. Updated October 26, 2016.
If the weather forecast is to be believed, 2016 is set to herald the kind of "North of the Wall" winter we haven't seen in recent years. In fact, residents of Ontario have been advised of possible snowfall – in the last week of October!
No worries, everyone knows that all you need to survive adverse road conditions are winter tires and all-wheel drive... right? Don't forget about the human element in the equation, the squishy meatbag at the helm of some two-ton hunk of metal barrelling down the highway at a velocity just shy of demerit-point territory. Sure, you know to go easy on the gas and to hit the brakes early and to steer into a skid – whatever that means. And you've been driving for years, what could possibly go wrong? Other than the heart palpitations when you see something on the road that might be melting snow or black ice, or when you don't see anything at all but feel that lurch in your gut as tire noise disappears and all sensation of the road beneath you evaporates and you're all too quickly sideways. What do you do in those situations? That's where winter driving instruction comes in.
Winter driving courses are offered by a variety of organizers: automotive manufacturers, driving schools, local racing/motor clubs and individual instructors. Beyond the cost of participation, courses vary in duration, venue choice, and content. No two classes are exactly the same, but they should all hit the same fundamental points: basic winter driving techniques, braking, cornering, skid control and emergency evasion. Some people learn better through theory, while others prefer hands-on practice; you should ask about the length of in-class versus in-car instruction and pick the course that works best for your learning habits.
This category is dominated by the Germans. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche both offer winter driving courses. (Audi and BMW previously offered winter driving events, but haven't announced a 2016/2017 schedule.) Here, you'll be driving vehicles supplied by the organizer, and the entire event is designed to focus on the fun and exhilaration of pushing performance vehicles to their limit on slippery surfaces, in addition to the standard curriculum of road safety.
This emphasis on exuberance is nowhere more evident than Porsche's Camp4, which is held at Mecaglisse in Quebec and starts at the eyebrow-raising, wallet-emptying price of $5,295 plus tax. What you get is three nights at a luxury hotel and two full days of doing silly things in very expensive sports cars. It's not so much a school as a weekend getaway. Return participants have the option of a more intense four-day experience in the form of the Camp4S(5 days, $6,495) and Camp4RS (5 days + optional driving day, $7,495).
The AMG Winter Sporting Driving Academy will be available in Canada in 2017.
New for Winter 2016/2017 is the AMG Winter Sporting Driving Academy, which is held on the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg near Gimli, Manitoba. Previously offered only in Sweden, the Canadian programme takes place over three days (Advanced, $3,995) or four (Advanced Plus, $4,995), boasting a technical track that incorporates some of the most challenging curves and apices from race courses around the world. Again, this is more of a luxury holiday than a safety workshop.
Coming back down from the stratosphere, you'll find the Mercedes-Benz Winter Driving Academy, which is a full-day event held at various locations across Canada. Participants can hop into 12 different vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz family (including AMG cars). Beyond the intense driving instruction, it also presents an opportunity for drivers to try out modern stability control systems in a safe environment.
In a similar vein, Lexus runs a Canada-wide High Performance Driving Program – but only for Lexus owners. Instead of providing cars for participants to complete their exercises in, Lexus owners use their own vehicles on the track, so they don't have to familiarize themselves with a new vehicles, and they can see for themselves just what their vehicle is capable of.
Certain luxury hotels will have partnerships with automobile manufacturers to offer such things as driving excursions or vehicle rentals. Who knows, you may find yourself in some snow-covered woods in a Land Rover.
There's only one national driving school chain that offers a winter driving course: Young Drivers. They offer a half-day Winter Driving Program, which involves 3 hours of in-class theory and 1.5 hours of in-car instruction. The emphasis here isn't on emergency maneuvres, but practicing driving habits that avoid situations where those maneuvres are necessary. Local driving schools may offer their own winter driving classes, and chances are they will be one-on-one sessions with an emphasis on in-car practice. Novice drivers will likely appreciate the use of their own vehicle for the on-road portions.
Local Racing/Motor Clubs
Local clubs offer the best price, and there's a greater chance you'll be practicing in the safe, closed environs of a parking lot (or even on a track). The benefit of choosing a racing or motor club is that they tend to have many time slots, so you'll be able to participate based on your own schedule. It's also a good way to meet motoring enthusiasts in your area, if you decide you really enjoy speeding down a racetrack or navigating a closed technical course.
Individual instructors offer the most flexibility – one-on-one sessions tailored to your learning objectives and strengths. However, it's harder for them to reserve a venue for in-car practice, so you may be practicing your moves in an empty parking lot or on an odd stretch of dirt road. The key benefit here is that, depending on the instructor, the scope of the lesson may extend beyond winter driving to include advanced driving techniques or outdoor survival.
The other kind of individual instructor
You know this guy, the guy who likes to go "surprise sideways", whose motto is "do a skid", whose idea of a winter car is a Miata with the top down. While it's tempting to say, "let's just hop in the car, do a couple of donuts and grab a pint afterwards," it's important to remember that experience in driving does not translate to experience in teaching. Though they may have mastered the Scandinavian flick and drive like a Finnish rally racer, there's no guarantee that they can communicate that knowledge verbally in a manner that makes sense while skidding across a rural road toward a copse of inconveniently placed conifers. (See: Kimi Räikkönen)
So you've registered, now what?
If you're driving your own car, you'll want to make sure that all outstanding maintenance work is done, that you have appropriate tires (snow tires are ideal, though most classes allow the use of all-seasons) and that any mechanical issues have been addressed, because you'll be pushing your vehicle hard. The day before, you'll want to clean out your car and make sure your tires are properly inflated. On the day of, fuel up and dress comfortably for the weather because you'll be outside and driving for most of the day.
Whatever your reason for taking a winter driving class, the most important thing you can come away with is the ability to exercise your judgment on the road. Though "confidence" is the term that usually gets tossed about, it's really a shorthand for "having the wherewithal to not freak out when you hit a patch of ice". It's about knowing how your vehicle will behave, what speed to travel at, or if you should even be on the road at all. If it's been a couple of years since you've tested the anti-lock braking system in your car, familiarize yourself with its operation (preferably on a quiet stretch of road) so you know what to expect should you need to make use of it.
Oh, and winter tires. All the winter tires.