Driving in White-out Conditions, Sounkyo, Hokkaido
Being staying close to 300+ days every year in a country like Singapore where it is sunny, hot and humid all year round, maybe wet and humid but hot all the same, it really makes one desire naturally air-conditioned temperature, snow, coolness, the escape from perspiration.
Well … there is a trade-off …hahaha …. in a hot and humid country like Singapore, no matter how bad the weather is (which could only be wet or wetter), there is never an issue with driving. There is no such thing as poor visibility, maybe not so good visibility which is really very heavy rain downpour with reasonable visibility to about 300m + or so. There is no such thing as skidding while turning (of course unless we have race car drivers speed turning in really wet weather conditions) . There is no such thing as not being able to stop a car when one is driving fast.
Well …. one thing for sure… all these changes when driving in a cold, snowy, maybe snow-covered roads, maybe ice-covered roads, plus lots of snow blown towards the windscreen. Now, we are talking about a driver that must really know his or her stuff to drive in such conditions. A driver that must be able to keep his / her cool when under pressure by local drivers that drive way above speed limits and is behind your back on a single lane, what should one do when the back tires skids off where turning, how far when how fast to stop without sliding and overshooting the stop line, how to drive when all fronts are white and everything on the road looks white in a blizzard-like condition.
I learnt in these few days more than I have learnt driving for the past 20 years plus. LOL … and probably something I will never forget in my lifetime, driving in a blizzard storm, white-out, and my first-time driving in such situations from Sounkyo back to Asahikawa…
ABS System (Anti-brake): Many models come with it. It helps to ensure braking traction on the road with the wheel locking up (uncontrollable slide forward). When it comes about, one would literally feel the car vibrating like gaaar ... gaarrr ... ggaaarr ... sound-like. It is really normal, nothing to be alarmed at, as the car is attempting to stop without sliding. These is really helpful in snowy conditions and if one rents a car, look for cars with one of these. Cars without ABS is likely to slide further due to wheel-lock.
Snow Tires: Something that one can't do without if driving in snow conditions. Safety is paramount! Without that, a perfect holiday can be ruined. Snow tires give more traction on the road than normal tires and a snow chain addition can be an alternative for really bad conditions but there is a speed limit when driving with snow chains on. I have no experience on using snow chains on tires so I have little useful input on that.
Knowing when to slow down: This is important. The braking distance is different from normal roads in summer. Test out the braking distance if possible at safe stretches of road. I can assure you that the braking distance is definitely much further than in summer roads. And when coming to a rail-crossing, slow down early rather than late and finding that one can't brake on-time. This could be disastrous if a train happens to be passing by concurrently, not to mention that rail-crossing is rough when going over it too fast (Psss... that happened to me on my first pass hahaha)
Skidding during turning: It is normal to skid in winter conditions when roads are icy or slippery or a combination of both and one encounters a tight round-about. Slow down when entering into such turns to 40km/hr or less. Be prepared to counter-steer; i.e. if the back tires skids to the right when turning left, steer back to the right sufficiently to ensure that the vehicle's heading remains in the right direction and vice-versa. (It's easy to say lol ... but you should have seen the cold sweat beading off my forehead)
Icy roads are dangerous. They can be called black-ice or eisbahn. The normal braking distance can increase from twice to thrice or more under such conditions making accidents all too likely. Heed signs and warnings that warns drivers of stretch of roads that could be affected by this and drive slower.
White out: Hold your calm and don't panick. If one has to drive in such conditions as I did without a choice, drive slower, turn on the headlights, wipers. Look to the top where there are periodic flashing red arrows indicating where the side of the road is and keep to it. (When I first arrived, I was wondering why Japanese designed the arrows on top of the lamp posts. Looking back... that's pretty smart of them :P)
Pressure to speed up: It is normal that locals will drive faster than foreigners knowing the local road conditions better. And it is common to have single lanes for long distance. So traffic could kinda pile up behind you. My advise is that hold at a steady and safe speed regardless. There will be sections where the roads widen up to 2 lanes for a distance to allow overtaking. Safety is still paramount. Don't drive beyond a speed that one is comfortable in.
Oh yes, and don’t forget to get additional insurance. It might be paying more per day, but it is an insurance policy against something going wrong while driving and having to fork up more budget to the car rental company due to vehicle damages.