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Getting a grip
by Asa Butcher
2007-03-03 11:00:07
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Over ten years ago I finally managed to pass my UK driving test on the fifth attempt and was presented with the license to legally motor alone. The British test includes three-point turns, emergency stops, reversing around corners and trying not to kill the examiner, which I almost did on my third test. However, the test does not include handling a car on ice or in wintry conditions; the closest I came to ice was in my celebratory cocktail afterwards.

In 2002 I moved to Finland and was happy to learn that my EU license was valid and allowed me to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Summer motoring was pleasant, albeit the sun is still in your eyes at midnight, but November rolled round and snow began to fall upon the highways. Road warnings were flashed up on the weather broadcasts and the news carried reports of crashes on Helsinki’s main circular roads, Ring I and Ring III.

Surprisingly, even experienced Finns were losing control of their vehicles and this planted a seed of concern in my mind. What would I be like on ice? Could I regain control if I lost traction? How should I correct oversteer or understeer? Why can’t they put more grit on the roads? At first all these questions were not too important, since I did not drive regularly or even own a car, but then my daughter was born.

For me, the whole sense of driving changed now I had a tiny life securely strapped into the backseat. Her safety was in my hands and ability behind the steering wheel, but what were my skills on ice? Zero. The UK rarely gets snow and when it does most people stay at home leaving their car locked up in the garage. I realized that this was not an option for Finland because ‘sitting it out’ for four months is not that fun.

I knew that a session with a winter driving school would be the solution, but life and my memory just would never let that happen, until a few weeks ago. An email arrived from Nissan Nordic Europe Oy inviting me to attend a winter driving school that they were organizing for foreigners, so how could I say no!

The day was divided into two parts, theory and driving. The theory part was greeted with an inward yawn as it began, but it soon proved to be the best part of the day for me. After an initial presentation by Joni Kuusisto from the Strada Driving Academy, he took us into the Safety Centre at the Vihti Driving range where our approach to driving was given an overhaul.

The first room contained a full-size stuffed moose and the shell of car that had collided with one; the damage to its front windscreen and car seats was shocking, plus the fact that the driver had emerged alive was a miracle. Further rooms contained examples of the uncomfortable effects of a mere 7km/h crash and the effects of a collision on a baby’s neck. The theory ended with a video captured by Swedish police of a horrific accident that was repeated ad infinitum in slow motion.

As we left the theory part of the course, few of us had the confidence to ever drive again – let alone on ice! However, we realized that the course was safe, there was nothing we could kill, the cars were owned by Nissan and the instructors were consummate professionals. We all grabbed one of the parked Nissans and set off to choose which of the four routes we wanted to test.

As for the model I started with, that is a mystery. I am not a petrolhead and can only say it was the smallest of them all and was blue. Anyway, I began by testing the braking distance on ice at 30km/h and then 35km/h, which is a lot further than you would imagine or even hope. God knows, what it would feel like if there had actually been somebody in the road.

I upgraded my car to a Nissan Murrano and found myself handling an automatic for the first time in my life. There are certainly advantages over manual, but I found the experience rather passive and similar to driving a child’s toy. Anyway, the bigger car was perfect was testing the slalom and gave me the chance to practice a new steering technique advised by the instructors – I even got a ‘well-done’ over the walkie talkie afterwards.

The next car was a Nissan Navara, which is a cross between an SUV and a pick up, plus allows you to switch between rear-wheel drive and 4x4. This change gave an incredible insight into the properties of 4x4 when negotiating an icy corner. I began with rear-wheel drive and pushed the speed to 30km/h before slamming on the brakes halfway into the corner. The adrenaline rush as I just slid out of control could become addictive, yet when I repeated the corner with 4x4 activated there was no slippage at all. Safe, yet disappointing!

The final car was a Nissan Pathfinder and can be described a beast of a car in all aspects. I had to control my speed at all times, with either it or my gas foot wanting to go faster than permitted. It handled the icy roundabout test superbly allowing me to practice corrective driving on ice at a speed of 30km/h. I loved the car so much that when I parked it I accidentally walked off with the keys.

I left the course feeling exhausted, but safe in the knowledge that there are very simple methods to avoid losing the control on ice…the first being slow down. For so many people moving to Finland and being allowed to drive despite no experience on icy roads, there is a huge market for these types of driving schools and I hope that you have been inspired by this article to sign up for one soon. I now feel confident to drive my daughter around Finland at all times of the year, so thank you very much Nissan!

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Tony W2007-03-03 11:10:25
A good review! Sounds like it would be very useful. I have been here 4 winters and still have no first hand training on how to drive in winter, only some second hand advice which is always a bit different depending on who is telling. So I would love to do one of these course (plus getting to test drive a few different cars :))

Are there any contact details for the places that organise these courses?

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