Snow, sleet and freezing rain can strike suddenly this time of year and these adverse weather conditions can pose a significant threat to drivers. The Federal Highway Safety Administration (FHWA) estimates that 17% of weather-related crashes occur during snow or sleet, 13% happen on icy pavement and 14% take place on snowy or slushy pavement. While such statistics prove that wintry conditions present some of driving’s most dangerous challenges, too many drivers do not alter their driving habits when traveling in extreme weather. With the winter season upon us, now is a good time to review some of the most common winter driving mistakes and see if there’s room for improvement in your driving approach.
Mistake #1 – Driving Too Fast The most common and potentially most dangerous mistake is driving too fast. Remember, the posted speed limit is set for dry pavement. Drivers should adjust their speed to match current weather and road conditions, traffic, and visibility. Traction comes from the interaction between the tires and the road, and any amount of road moisture affects vehicle control. So, if visibility is diminished or any precipitation begins to fall, you should slow down. In poor conditions, the trick to deciding what your traveling speed should be is to be realistic about what feels safe, and then reduce your speed even more.
Mistake #2 – Driving Too Closely Many drivers make the mistake of following other vehicles too closely in inclement weather. Chances are if those vehicles make an error, you will too. Like driving too fast, following too closely lessens the amount of time drivers have to react and increases the severity of any collision. Also, stopping distances can increase up to ten-fold in snowy or icy conditions, so drivers need to allow themselves more space to maneuver and stop. One of the best ways to avoid being involved in a winter-weather crash is to maintain at least eight or more seconds of following distance. Whenever possible, drive in the open, staying away from packs of vehicles to gain maximum space around your vehicle, and slow down and back off if you’re catching up to a cluster of traffic. Additionally, watch carefully for snowplows and salting vehicles, give equipment operators plenty of room to work, and remember that the plow is wider than the truck.
Mistake #3 – Making Abrupt Movements When drivers feel their tires starting to skid, often their first reaction is to slam on the brakes. Making any abrupt movements while braking, steering or accelerating in wintry conditions, however, can cause a vehicle to lose traction, and a driver to lose control of the vehicle. As such, moves should be made slowly and carefully. Apply the brakes early and gently, and steer smoothly to help keep your tires’ grip. Plan your turns and make them cautiously to minimize skids. Importantly, stay alert and learn to recognize hazards early to avoid the need to make sudden maneuvers.
Mistake #4 – Not Looking Far Enough Ahead Many drivers focus only on the vehicle directly in front of them and fail to spot changing traffic scenes or adverse conditions further up the road. Knowing what to expect as early as possible can help make the difference between a collision and a near miss. To anticipate situations, look well ahead – 12-15 seconds minimally and up to 20-30 seconds, if possible. Watch for brake lights from vehicles in front of you that might indicate traffic may be slowing, and you will need to slow down or brake. In extreme weather conditions, you will need extra time to do so. Focus on bridges, overpasses, intersections, shaded areas and wherever water may run across the roadway. Look out for vehicles having problems with conditions as this will help alert you to hazards more quickly, and give you that split-second of extra time to react safely. Keep your eyes moving, and don’t forget to check your mirrors regularly for hazards lurking from the sides and rear.
Mistake #5 – Driving with Poor Visibility Wintry weather greatly reduces a driver’s ability to see and motorists that fail to maximize their visibility are increasing their risk of an accident. Mirrors should be cleared before hitting the road, and along the way as needed. Pay special attention to the inside and outside of your windows and make sure you clean the whole pane, not just a small peephole. Headlights, taillights and reflectors should also be cleaned frequently, and headlights should be turned on to improve others’ visibility of your vehicle. (During heavy snowfall or fog, use low beam headlights; the use of high beams can actually reduce visibility for you as well as others.) Be especially alert for pedestrians in inclement weather; they will be much more difficult to see when visibility is compromised. Wind-driven snow can cause added visibility problems by obscuring signs, road markings and off ramps, and heavy snowfalls can cut visibility to zero. Of course, if you can’t see, don’t drive. Pull off at the nearest safe location and wait until conditions improve.
Mistake #6 – Failing to Remove Ice and Snow from Vehicle Another mistake that some drivers make in the winter months is failing to remove ice and snow from their vehicles before driving. Ice and snow flying off of moving vehicles creates a hazardous condition not only for other drivers, but nearby pedestrians as well. Due to a number of accidents caused by flying ice and snow in recent years, some states have enacted “ice missile” laws. Even in those states without ice and snow removal regulations, drivers can still be issued citations if law enforcement officers believe the accumulation causes equipment to be unsafe. So, before each trip and along the way as necessary, thoroughly clean your vehicle of ice and snow. By doing so, you can help prevent accidents, avoid fines and save your company from potential liability for negligence.
Mistake #7 – Not Preparing the Vehicle The problems of traveling in winter weather are only compounded if a vehicle fails to operate properly. So, before you begin any trip, be sure to perform a thorough pre-trip inspection as required by federal regulations (§ 396.13: Driver inspection). Pay particular attention to your tires and brakes, as well as the condition of belts and hoses. Make sure all fluid levels, particularly antifreeze, are adequate, and that battery terminals are clean and in good condition. Test the condition of wipers and don’t forget to add windshield washer antifreeze to the washer reservoir to prevent icing. Check that the heater is functioning as it should and that the defroster is operating at peak performance. This is an absolute necessity for visibility. Fill up the fuel tank before departing and maintain at least a half-tank of fuel at all times for unexpected detours and a source of heat if you get stuck.
Mistake #8 – Not Preparing Yourself Driving in snow, sleet or freezing rain requires full concentration and most drivers don’t realize that it uses more energy than driving in good conditions. Failure to get adequate sleep before attempting a trip in inclement weather greatly increases driving risks as fatigue slows reaction time, decreases awareness and impairs judgment. That’s why you should drive only when you are physically rested and mentally alert to do so. Wear comfortable clothes that don’t restrict your ability to drive properly. Adjust your vehicle’s environment, take regular breaks, and eat light meals to help you stay refreshed.
Mistake #9 – Failing to Check Weather Conditions Checking weather and road conditions before heading out and along the way seems like a no-brainer, but it can be all too easy to forget to do so. Winter driving conditions can change suddenly and dramatically, so it’s critical to plan your route carefully and drive with the utmost caution (§ 392.14: Hazardous conditions; extreme caution). Real-time traffic and weather conditions and forecasts can be obtained by checking state transportation websites and listening to local radio or television station broadcasts. Good information may help you determine a change of route that could keep you out of the worst conditions, or decide to wait for a safer time to travel. When driving, watch for conditions that indicate ice is forming, such as the road surface has a satin sheen to it or there is no spray coming off of vehicle tires ahead. If your own tires suddenly become quiet, you may be unexpectedly driving on slick pavement. Check the back surface of your side mirror; if it’s icy, chances are the road will be as well. Watch the traffic around you; if you’ve come up against unexpected hazards, so have those drivers who aren’t as well trained as you are in dealing with harsh winter driving. It should also be noted that when snow falls, snow removal equipment concentrates on the most heavily-traveled state roads and interstates first, so secondary roadways, local streets and rural areas may not immediately be plowed. In extreme conditions, snow often falls faster than it can be cleared, which means lanes are often obstructed by snow accumulations. As a result, trips can take much longer during winter than at other times of the year. The best thing you can do is to anticipate delays and allot extra time to reach your destination.
Mistake #10 – Failing to Carry a Survival Kit When traveling in colder climates, drivers must always be prepared for whatever they may encounter, although many overlook one important thing: a winter storm survival kit. Should conditions cause you to be stranded for a period of time, a survival kit in your vehicle may be a lifesaver. The kit should include, but not be limited to, extra clothing (i.e., coat, hat, insulated gloves, socks, boots), first aid supplies, a blanket, a cell phone and charger, an ice scraper with brush or a commercial de-icer, a lock de-icer, a flashlight with extra batteries, triangles or flares, a small shovel, non-perishable high-energy food (i.e., nuts, jerky, dried fruit or granola bars), matches in a waterproof container, bottled water and prescribed medications. A lengthy delay on snow-choked roads will make you glad you have these items with you.
Mistake #11 – Leaving the Vehicle if Stranded When it comes to driving in extreme weather conditions, there is always a chance of finding yourself stranded in your vehicle. One of the biggest mistakes motorists make is leaving the vehicle to look for help. Unless your vehicle is in the road or is in an otherwise unsafe condition, the driest, warmest, safest place to wait until assistance arrives is your vehicle. Bundle up with the extra clothing from your winter storm survival kit and keep moving to help stay warm. Run the engine for only about 10 minutes each hour for heat, making sure that the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow, ice or mud, and a window is opened slightly for ventilation.
Mistake #12 – Not Using Common Sense While using common sense might be the most important part of the winter driving equation, many drivers push their luck, and all too often, with deadly results. If especially bad weather seems likely before you’ve hit the road, consider postponing your trip; it’s not worth endangering your life or the lives of others. If you’re already on the road, and conditions deteriorate and you don’t feel comfortable driving, pull off of the roadway and park at the first safe, legal place until conditions improve. While any driver can be pressured by customer requests, hours of services rules (§ 395.1) and dispatchers, smart drivers know when not to be. Driving in snow, sleet or freezing rain can be dangerous for even the most experienced driver, but you can help reduce your risk of an accident all winter long by avoiding these mistakes. Stay alert, buckle up and, above all, SLOW DOWN!