This is a cautionary tale about chains and electronic aids.

And some of you can get your mind out of the gutter right now. No time for distracting thoughts.

We need to discuss the double-edge nature of bad-weather driving technologies, and we need to discuss it pronto — the white stuff is due any day now.

Once upon a time, a tire chain was a “state of the art” technology for getting around in wintry situations.

Today’s automotive technologies make good use of electronics and computers. The four main ones we now harness to move around better in winter are: anti-lock braking systems (ABS), traction control systems, stability management systems, and all wheel drive.

They are all, in a word, “awesome.”

But they’re not miracle workers — they still have to obey the laws of physics. And if drivers overestimate their capacity to help and/or have absolutely no experience with them before the winter-driving sphincter moment arrives, then they have the potential to be the exact opposite of helpful.

Pierre Savoy is a professional driving instructor. One of his gigs is conducting BMW Canada’s Winter Driving School every year somewhere in snowy Quebec. It is his learned opinion that most people are woefully unfamiliar with the operation and intent of these systems.

“Most people don’t know how to use them, or what to do when they are activated, or even what they feel like when they are activated,” says Savoy. “When I do driving training I get people to activate their ABS brakes, and it’s often the first time they do. And what happens? They take their foot off because of the ruckus.”

The correct response would be to keep the brake pedal plastered to the floorboards, and realize that the ruckus is caused by brakes violently cycling on and off, so the wheels slow down dramatically but not lock-up. This technique not only gets you stopped in the shortest possible distance, but also allows you to continue steering, hopefully around any thing you need to get around.

Savoy says traction control and stability control offer the same opportunities for confusion. They automatically apply brakes and/or shut down engine power, to get the car moving, or slowed down and under control when its swaying — not the most gentlest of experiences. And if you're not expecting it and wondering what’s happening to your universe at that moment, well, then it becomes just more excitement you’ll need to process at that juncture.

That’s why Savoy advocates taking your car out to some safe place to try all this stuff out, before you experience it in anger on some icy road in the middle of the night.

Like we said at the top, these are “aids.” They are there to help, not as a substitution for proper decision-making. That’s not to say anyone should not indulge in improper decision making from time to time. Just not behind the wheel.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for over 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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