By Spencer McDonald
We were on British Columbia’s Highway 5 between Hope and Merritt in the middle of winter. This is the stretch of road now made famous by the Discovery Channel program, Highway Through Hell. We were going skiing. It was snowing, the road was covered in compact snow and the temperature was well below freezing. For this time of year on the Coquihalla, it’s pretty typical conditions.
These kinds of conditions can be challenging to drive in, but by no means must they be particularly dangerous if handled responsibly and with a modicum of skill and caution.
Approach winter conditions with less than good vehicle handling skills and/or overconfidence and you are in for trouble.
We live in a country where every single city has the potential for and history of snow. Yes, even Victoria, B.C., has seen snowy roads. So why are there so many crashes at the first sign of the white stuff?
Too many of us either don’t understand the nature of traction, how to find and maintain traction in winter conditions and the implications of traction loss, or we do understand all of this but overestimate our capabilities. Either way, the results range from simply getting stuck or the harmless spinout described above, to more tragic events like the recent bus crash on a snowy pass in Oregon that killed several passengers.
There are six main driving conditions that may affect your driving during winter months. Being mentally aware of these six conditions will assist you in safely negotiating your way during periods of extreme driving conditions.
Weather is the most unpredictable of the six conditions of winter driving. Winter can bring snow, sleet, ice, rain, winds and extreme temperatures. These conditions can last minutes or days. They can change without notice, making your journey hazardous. Prior to leaving on a trip, it is important to check the weather and road conditions to better prepare for them. Knowledge is power. Weather reports are available from various sources such as the radio, television or the Internet. Many jurisdictions have dedicated government phone numbers or a web site where you can obtain the latest weather conditions.
This is the one condition that you have some control over. Get your vehicle winter-ready with a maintenance check-up. Don’t wait for winter to check your battery, belts, hoses, radiator, oil, lights, brakes, exhaust system, heater/defroster, wipers and ignition system. A simple winter check-up for your vehicle may alleviate serious problems in the future. Getting stranded on the side of the road in winter conditions is no picnic. For sure, check that you have good winter tires with the snowflake symbol displayed on the sidewall.
It is not reasonable, nor prudent, to expect roads to be bare and dry during winter months. Snow, ice, slush and compact snow are road conditions that can be expected any time in winter. Being prepared to meet the challenges that these conditions bring is critical to the safety of you and your passengers. As with weather conditions, there are also government agencies that provide information about road conditions. A simple call or check will give you a heads up on the road conditions before your drive.
Sharing the road with others is something you can’t avoid. They may not be as prepared as you are. They may be running on poor tires and perhaps are driving well beyond their abilities and capabilities. A thinking driver will perform a proper assessment of this risk and choose the appropriate action to deal with the situation. Perhaps just changing lanes will do the trick. If they are following you so close that they become a hazard, it may be safer to have them in front of you. Move over and let them pass. Leaving more room or staying away from other drivers during winter driving is the thinking driver’s way.
During winter months, depending on where you live, daylight can be from a few hours to non-existent. With later sunrises, earlier sunsets and the sun lower on the horizon, glare can be a big hazard. Blowing snow or the cover of white snow on the ground can further intensify glare. To minimize these effects, maintain the cleanliness of your windshield on both the outside and the inside. Any debris or dirt film will intensify the glare and reduce your visibility. Wearing sunglasses is a good option to reduce glare. Because of the extended hours of darkness, make sure that all your lights are functioning properly and that they are cleaned off periodically. This is an important step to increase your ability to see and be seen by others. Blowing snow will accumulate on the back of the vehicle, covering taillights and brake lights, so check them regularly. Ensuring that your taillights are clean will increase your visibility and reduce the likelihood of being rear-ended.
Winter driving can be stressful and exhausting. With factors like changing conditions, other drivers on the road and wearing cumbersome clothing, winter driving is not the same as summer driving. Vehicle control can be more difficult when you are wearing heavy winter boots along with several layers of clothing. Your winter gear can impede your movements and make vehicle control more difficult than when you are in comfortable shoes and clothing during summer months.
Being well rested will increase your mental alertness and assist you in remaining focused on the driving task at hand. It will help you remain calm during stressful situations. When you are well rested, you are less susceptible to physical aches and pains. You will find yourself feeling more comfortable behind the wheel than if you are tired. Being well rested will ensure that you are in good shape for the trip, not only mentally, but physically as well.
Consider these six conditions every time you venture out in winter —or any time, for that matter. A thinking driver recognizes that these conditions affect the way that he or she must drive to stay safe and uses good driving techniques to negotiate them.
Coming up next month: How to handle your vehicle like a pro in winter.