Winter Driving – It’s Not All About Snow!

When it comes to winter driving, drivers and operators often focus on traditional cold weather conditions – snow and ice, but the winter months can present many different driving challenges, regardless of your location.

Lancer’s analysis of the data on accidents related to adverse conditions shows that while the number of fatalities statistically decreases due to fewer drivers on the road, coach accidents during bad weather invariably produce vehicle overturn or rollover. These result in more claims involving serious orthopedic injuries, head and brain trauma, and other catastrophic injuries.

Although your operation may not be located in a winter climate area, you may find yourself driving in adverse winter conditions due to infrequent, but increasing winter weather events in southern climates. There are also hazards associated with driving in areas populated with other motorists who are not familiar with winter driving. Moreover, some warmer climate areas experience an increase in population during the winter months and, even without weather issues, the increase in traffic and tourists creates a driving challenge, even for the most experienced driver. Bus operators should not assume that their drivers are familiar with the location, climate and traffic patterns. Instead, drivers should be provided with information and training so they can complete the trip safely and successfully.

The keys to safety when driving in adverse conditions are the same, regardless of the conditions encountered. Whether driving at night, in fog, dust or smoke, or driving under wet, snowy or icy conditions, safety depends on a driver’s ability to follow these five steps:

Step 1 – Be Prepared.

Make sure you are familiar with Section 392.14 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations – Hazardous Conditions – and follow the federal requirements. It may be illegal for you to operate your vehicle under certain conditions, and no amount of scheduling pressures should ever compel you to break the law.

You must also properly prepare yourself and your vehicle with a thorough and careful pre-departure vehicle inspection. Your life and the lives of your passengers will be, more than usual, dependent upon the safe operating condition of your vehicle. It does little good to turn on your lights if any of them are burned out. Tires that are bald or low on tread are far more likely to slip and slide. Defrosters and heaters that aren’t functioning will be of no benefit. And tire chains hanging in the shop instead of being carried in your vehicle won’t help a bit when you’re facing a mandatory chain-up zone. Be sure to know how to put on chains before you need to do it in snow or ice, and remember to check your antifreeze level, wiper blades and wiper fluid level. Clean the windshield regularly and don’t forget to keep your headlights and mirrors clean while you’re en route.

In addition to having a safe and ready vehicle, always carry along some cold weather clothing and other items that can help you survive in severe conditions. These might include a heavy coat, boots, a hat and gloves, blankets, a charged cellular phone and charger, a flashlight and extra batteries, a small shovel, a snow brush and an ice scraper. Non-perishable food and water are also a good idea. Use your pre-trip inspection to make sure you have all the equipment and accessories you might need to help you in a hazardous situation. Importantly, always buckle your seat belt on every trip, no matter the driving conditions.

Step 2 – Slow Down.

In adverse conditions, speed is your enemy and you can reduce the risk of trouble by slowing down. Speed increases stopping distance and makes your vehicle more difficult to control. At night, higher speeds mean you may be out-driving your headlights, and your stopping distance can exceed the distance ahead that you can actually see.

Speed increases the chance of a slide or a skid and can cause you to misjudge a curve. Slowing down helps decrease your stopping distance and increases your stability on the road surface. If you find yourself in extreme conditions, it is not unreasonable to reduce your speed by 75% of the speed limit, or to 15 miles per hour – and even less in very treacherous conditions. Nothing can restore your control of your vehicle and correct an adverse situation better than the simple act of slowing down.

Step 3 – Increase Following Distance and Space Around You.

One of the best ways to reduce your chances of being involved in an extreme weather accident is to increase the space and time that you have to maneuver your vehicle – giving yourself a safety cushion of room to react. Extra space to the sides and especially in front of you, adds to your safety margin, so drive in the open, staying away from packs of vehicles. Slow down and back off if you’re catching up to a cluster of traffic. Stay in your lane and protect your right side to reduce sideswipes from other vehicles. Increase your following distance to a minimum of eight seconds or more under adverse conditions. At 60 miles per hour in ideal driving conditions, your vehicle will travel about 350 feet from the time you apply the brakes before it comes to a complete stop. That’s more than the length of a football field! In bad weather conditions, that distance increases quite dramatically.

Step 4 – Use Gradual Movements.

Perform every action slowly. Whether you are accelerating, slowing, turning or changing lanes, do so gradually. Quick movements can easily cause a loss of control, especially in adverse conditions where some traction has already been lost. Slow, gradual movements help you maintain maximum control of your vehicle.

Step 5 – Stay Alert.

Be aware of changing conditions because a very hazardous situation can come upon you suddenly. Pay attention to anything that could potentially contribute to an accident. Temperature changes and elevated surfaces, such as bridges and overpasses, can turn a wet road into an icy one. Listen to your tires; if they become quiet, you may unexpectedly be driving on a slick surface. If that happens, check the back surface of your side mirror. If it’s icy, chances are the road is as well. And watch the vehicles around you. If you’ve come up against unexpected hazards, so have other drivers who may not have the benefit of being a trained professional.

Lastly, keep in mind that adverse weather conditions are further complicated at night. The loss of full illumination means that hazards that may be in full view during the daylight can be hidden from view until you are too close to avoid them. Keep your eyes moving, and remember that as we get older, it is harder to see at night. A 55 year-old driver could require twice as much light to see an object as a 25 year-old driver. Night driving, especially in adverse weather conditions, demands a slower speed and a minimum following distance of eight or more seconds so you are not outdriving your headlights.

As a professional driver, you have defenses against adverse driving conditions. Know what to expect, size up every situation you encounter and adjust your driving to minimize the dangers. By doing so, you can help keep yourself and your passengers safe throughout the trip. Most importantly, slow down and be willing to cancel or end the trip whenever adverse weather may impact safe driving.

This article was written by Bob Crescenzo, Vice President, Lancer Insurance Company. For additional information see their website at www.lancerinsurance.com