I remember too well my first winter driving disaster, sliding the nearly new parental Saab 99LE sideways through a stop sign at the bottom of our hill and across a major truck thoroughfare. My life flashed before my eyes as I prepared to meet the fate of the Cassidy kid up the street, who died at this intersection when he failed to stop his wooden sled in time. Years later, his name was still being reverently invoked for the benefit of the youthful sledding community.
How did I come so close to buying the farm? At first, I thought, bad luck (mixed obviously with some of the good stuff). But with time I’ve remembered other things. First, that people actually used to say dumb stuff like, “Who needs snow tires when you’ve got radials?” And also that no one ever taught me how to drive in snow and ice. I’d almost kill myself several times before I got it right. (Three 60-mph 360s into a snowbank on I-80 in a 1975 Plymouth Valiant stand out in my memory.)
Miraculously, I crossed that fearful intersection unscathed, but I still recall the terror of that moment every time I think of my two eldest children — both motorists now — driving in snow.
Which is why when the call came with an invitation to take them to the Bridgestone Winter Driving School (winterdrive.com) in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, my answer could only be a resounding yes. If a lifetime of driving has taught me anything, it’s that good driving is no more an accident than are most accidents. For a parent, sometimes it’s not enough just to say, “Be careful.”
Ike Kitman, who you will recall couldn’t be bothered to take his driver’s test for months, has had a profound personality transformation since we last spoke of him, which must be the subject of a later column, but suffice it to say he has turned into a full-on car and driving bore. His sister Ellie has her learner’s permit and is still working on her basic technique but, like her brother, had everything to learn about winter driving. And sure enough, they were majorly edified. With a passel of Lexii on hand as mobile test laboratories, the full-day course of braking, steering, skid control, and understeer/oversteer exercises improved their skills and assuredly set them thinking in the right direction, in no small part due to crackerjack instructors Lea Crouteau and Robert Ames, both of whom know the fast way around a frozen racetrack.
Adding cosmic urgency and unspeakable sadness was a tragic text message received trackside, informing the kids of a high-school acquaintance who’d died the previous evening in a winter driving accident while returning with friends from a college tour. The poor young thing was sleeping in the back of a car that left the road. Only later did I learn that I knew her mother, a single mom who would have given anything for her now-deceased only child. Does the world know greater sadness? Would I recommend winter and other driving courses for teens? Without hesitation.
The rest of our weekend in Colorado was a somber graduate course in winter driving. Bridgestone Blizzaks seem like the official tire of Steamboat Springs, as we saw them on many shuttle vans, their drivers (unrelated to our party) on two occasions delivering unsolicited testimonials to Blizzaks specifically and the essential nature of winter tires generally. The kids and I watched with fascination as a series of crusty professionals did everything right while negotiating steep, snow-covered roads — smooth, steady, and alert.
Cementing a mounting fear of inclement weather, we were advised late the night before our departure that our morning flight out of nearby Hayden was canceled on account of a plane crash. The airport was closed indefinitely, forcing us to rise at 4:30 a.m. to catch a shuttle van over a 12,000-foot mountain pass in a snowstorm in order to make the only available flight out of Denver that day. Our transport was a clapped-out Chevy van with a clunking front end and a driver who looked and sounded like Yosemite Sam gone off his meds. But four Blizzaks and prudent technique that would’ve made our instructors proud got us to the airport safely, with time to spare.
I hope this is a winter driving memory that my kids will hold on to.