Coming from Texas and now living in the northeast, I am perpetually in awe watching my Canadian husband maneuver a vehicle in winter weather. In the midst of a snowstorm a few weeks back, he busted out some wild moves with his handbrake that had me looking just like that Pikachu meme. Confident driving on snowy roads isn’t a mysterious talent granted only to northerners, however. Here’s a quick tutorial courtesy of Wyatt Knox at Team O’Neil on how to use a handbrake in winter driving to get you up to speed.
This video focuses largely on faster braking—something that can be pretty difficult in adverse conditions. When roadways are covered in ice or snow, the ABS brakes that most cars are equipped with these days lose a lot of efficiency, making it hard to stop quickly and within a small distance.
That’s where your handbrake can come in:
The braking system on most modern cars is heavily biased toward the front, where the handbrake enables the driver to add some extra brake power to the rear of the car. Knox is driving a front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla with ABS enabled and winter tires, and he notes that it’s pretty similar to most cars in that it handles just fine in terms of acceleration and steering; it’s just in braking when things get sketchy.
The front of this car is set up with 70 percent of braking done with the front tires and 30 percent in the rear. In normal conditions, braking pushes the weight of the car forward onto the front brakes, so it makes sense to have an uneven brake bias. But when it’s slippery out, that doesn’t happen—not enough weight is thrown forward, which means there’s not enough grip and therefore not enough front braking to really get the car stopped.
If you don’t have a race car where you can easily adjust brake bias via some fancy knobs, you can artificially even it out by using the emergency handbrake.
Now, you can’t just crank on the handbrake and assume everything will be fine, because it will not be. You’ll lock up the brakes and skid around. You just have to tug it back in gentle increments until you come to a stop—which you should do much faster than you would have done just enabling the ABS brakes.
It’s important to make sure you have a car that’s set up properly, though. The handbrake has to be connected to the rear brakes; otherwise, you’re just exacerbating your braking problems.
If this is something you’re planning on trying out, make sure you watch the whole video. Knox offers plenty of helpful tips to prevent disaster and improve your winter driving skills—especially when it comes to using the handbrake while cornering.