Is gliding on ice in neutral ever a good idea?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 22, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband is 68, I am 72, and the following has been a lifelong argument. We have a small, graveled hill leading to our driveway. When it is icy, my husband insists on driving (or sliding) down the hill in neutral. Our vehicles are four-wheel drive and have gears 1 and 2 below drive. I say coasting down in neutral is wrong. I explain why I think so. He grew up on a farm, so he knows how things work, but he will not discuss it at all, and will (or can?) give no reason to back up his theory (whatever that is). I would love to know if I should be "freewheeling" down this hill instead of driving slowly down in gear. Thank you!

-- Carol, old gal in Iowa

TOM: Carol, the reason he can't explain why it's better to drive down an icy hill in neutral is because it isn't better.

RAY: Keeping the car in gear helps you maintain control of the vehicle. When your car is in gear, the engine is connected to the wheels, and the engine acts as a brake on those wheels (especially if you use the lower gears, 2 or 1). That keeps the car's speed under control without you having to step on the brakes.

TOM: If you step on the brakes on an icy hill, you tend to skid. And once you start skidding, you're no longer in control of the vehicle.

RAY: I'm guessing that because your husband grew up on a farm, it was all flat land, and he didn't get to do enough sledding as a kid, and he's making up for it now. Can you hear him, under his breath, saying, "Wheeeeeee!"?

TOM: Other than that, I can't imagine why he wants to go down an icy hill in neutral, Carol. I suppose if it's first thing in the morning and the car is warming up, it might be revving at 1,500 or 2,000 rpm, which might make him feel like the engine is pushing the car faster than he's comfortable going.

RAY: But in that case, he should simply wait 90 seconds until the car is warmed up and the revs return to normal idle speed, and then go down the hill in gear.

TOM: Right. Keeping it in gear helps you in maintaining a reasonable speed. If you never let the car get out of control, you'll never have to fight to get it back under control.

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