Driving in the winter means snow, sleet and ice that can lead to slower traffic, hazardous road conditions, hot tempers and unforeseen dangers.
Last winter about 300 people were stranded in their vehicles on Canadian Highway 402, east of Sarnia, Ontario, when a winter storm dumped a large amount of snow on the roads. Few of them were prepared to be marooned in their cars.
The safest thing to do is to postpone the trip until the roads are clear. However, if you must travel remember these tips:
Prepare your car for winter
- Check the ignition, brakes, wiring, hoses and fan belts.
- Check the air, fuel and emission filters, and the PCV valve.
- Check the battery.
- Check the tires for air pressure, sidewall abrasions and tread depth.
- Check antifreeze and windshield washer levels.
- Replace windshield wipers with blades designed to shed ice and snow.
Before you leave
Call your destination to see if you really need to travel. The meeting or appointment may be cancelled or rescheduled. Mentally prepare yourself to take longer to get to your destination. Try to avoid driving when visibility is poor.
To see and be seen by others requires the driver to clean all snow and ice from the vehicle’s hood, roof, trunk, lights and windows. Snow left on any of these areas increases the possibility that visibility will be affected when the vehicle is in motion. Turn the headlights on low beam so you can be seen more easily.
Normal following distances for dry pavement (two to three seconds) should be increased to eight to 10 seconds when driving on icy, slippery surfaces. This increased margin of safety will provide the longer distance needed if you have to stop. Keep an eye on the car behind you and increase your following distance if he is too close.
Snowy and icy surfaces make steering difficult and require smooth, careful, precise movements of the steering wheel. Skidding is caused by hard acceleration or braking, speeds too fast for conditions, and quick jerky movements of the steering wheel. Four by four vehicles can lose traction as easily as two-wheel drive vehicles.
Stopping on slippery surfaces requires longer visibility, following and stopping distances. The heavier the vehicle, the longer it will take to stop. The stopping distance required on ice at 0 degrees Fahrenheit is twice the amount required at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Shaded spots, bridges, overpasses and intersections are areas where ice is likely to form first or be the most slippery, because the shiny ice surface has either been polished by previous traffic, or a thin layer of water covers the melting ice below. When road conditions change, so do the braking requirements.
Many older drivers were taught to pump the brakes when stopping on slippery roads. Anti-Lock brakes now do this pumping for us. If your car is equipped with this feature, keep your foot on the brake pedal. You will feel a vibration and a buzzing sound but that is an indication that the system is working. The brakes are being applied and released quickly to allow the vehicle to be steered rather than skid out of control. Remember that if the brakes are being applied half the time this will double the stopping distance.
In a skid, it's important to regain control of your vehicle, especially if it skids sideways. Don't panic. Decelerate by taking your foot off the gas. As your wheels begin to grip the road, gently steer in the direction you want the vehicle to go and brake slowly if necessary.
Necessary vehicle equipment
An emergency situation on the road can arise at any time and you must be prepared. In addition to making sure you have at least a half tank of gas, you should carry the following items in your trunk:
- Properly inflated spare tire, wheel wrench and jack
- Jumper cables
- Bag of salt or cat litter to be used for traction
- Tool kit
- Reflective triangles and brightly-colored cloth
- Ice scraper and snow brush
- Empty coffee can and candles (for warmth)
Personal preparedness kit
- Keep a backpack in your car with:
- Blanket(s), socks, cap and mittens
- Empty coffee can with votive candles and matches for heat
- Bottled water
- Non-perishable, high-energy foods like unsalted canned nuts, dried fruits, and hard candy
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Cell phone charger
- First aid kit
- Pocket knife or multi tool
If you become stranded
- Call 911 and give your location.
- Do not leave your car unless you know exactly where you are, how far it is to possible help, and are certain you will improve your situation.
- To attract attention, light two flares and place one at each end of the car a safe distance away, or hang a brightly colored cloth from your car antenna or out a window.
- If you are sure the car's exhaust pipe is not blocked, run the engine and heater for about 10 minutes every hour or so depending upon the amount of gas in the tank.
- To protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia, use the woolen items and blankets to keep warm.
- Keep at least one window open slightly. Heavy snow and ice can seal a car shut.
Tim Tutak is vice chair of the Farmington Hills/Farmington Emergency Preparedness Commission.