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Jason Ogaard: The technology of driving safe

This time of year always seems to make for white-knuckle driving.

Snow and ice aren’t always the culprit, though.

Just a few weeks ago, actor Paul Walker was riding in a car driven by his friend out California.

That car ended going out of control and hitting a light pole and then a tree; both occupants were pronounced dead at the scene.

The turn where the car lost control is marked as a 45 mph turn, police estimate that the car was traveling at 90 or more mph.

The car they were driving was a Porsche.

Driving any car too fast for the conditions no matter where you live can be deadly. Modern cars today have a number of safety features that can help you from careening out of control, but they’ll only work if you are driving a reasonable speed.

Police suspect Walker’s friend was trying to drift the car around the corner where he lost control.

If the Porsche had any safety features, he would’ve turned them off before attempting to drift the car around the corner.

In cold winter weather, you don’t need to be going twice the posted safe speed to lose control of the vehicle.

Fortunately for us, modern vehicles come with a bevy of safety features that will help us out on the road.

One of the first is anti-lock brakes.

The anti-lock brake system will pulse the brakes so that the tires still spin while braking hard.

You can actually feel this in the brake pedal when braking hard in a slippery surface.

Cars without anti-lock brakes will completely seize up the wheels when the driver slams on the brakes.

When the wheels are seized they aren’t spinning, and it is very difficult to steer.

The driver has to hope that they stop in time to avoid whatever they were going to hit.

Having anti-lock brakes gives the driver the ability to also steer around the hazard while braking hard. If your car is made in the last 15 years, there’s a very good chance it has anti-lock brakes.

Don’t get too confident with this system, though. A number of studies have shown that anti-lock brakes can take longer to stop than conventional brakes.

The difference, though, is not large and it was decided that the ability to steer while stopping outweighed the longer stopping distance.

A system that’s a bit newer is traction control.

Traction control attempts to keep your wheels from spinning freely.

Traction control works by identifying wheels that are slipping and then reduces power to them.

This is especially helpful when driving in slippery conditions.

If one or more of your wheels is spinning because the road is slippery, you lose grip with that wheel.  

Traction control will slow that wheel down to the point that it is no longer spinning uncontrollably.

This can help keep your vehicle from spinning out of control.

The newest system in cars is called electronic stability control.

This system can detect when your car is traveling in a direction that’s different than the direction you are steering and will brake wheels individually to correct the car for you.

This is most helpful when the rear end of the car slides out to either side of the vehicle (known as fishtailing).

Most drivers are not experienced enough to correct themselves out of a fishtail and end up spinning the car several times until the car stops or hits something. Electronic stability control greatly reduces that risk.

One last thing I would like to point out.

A lot of vehicles today have all wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD).

These systems are great for driving in the snow because they help keep the car from getting stuck.

With all four wheels turning, its a lot easier to get moving from a stop or get your car over that mound of snow.

With either AWD or 4WD it’s easy for drivers to get overly confident because their vehicles accelerate almost as quickly in slippery conditions as they do in dry conditions.

One important thing that these drivers forget is that these systems only help the car start moving.

They do not help the car stop any quicker or grip around corners any better.

A driver will drive faster than is safe to because they were able to accelerate easily and forget or don’t realize that the roads are slippery and end up in an accident.

If you have a vehicle made in the last four or five years, there’s a good chance that it has all these safety features.

But these safety features are not a license to be overly confident while driving.

The key to safe driving is to keep your speeds reasonable for the conditions that you’re driving in.

All the safety features available won’t help you if you’re driving too fast.

JASON OGAARD was born in Bemidji and is a software engineer for FICO, a Minneapolis based public company providing analytics and decision-making services, including credit scoring credit bureaus.