Surviving Winter on The Road

All photos by Randy Stern
All photos by Randy Stern

All photos by Randy Stern

Are you a good winter driver?

This is truly a good question, because there is an impression from outside of our region that we, being Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin drivers, are supposed to deal with snow, ice and cold air conditions on the road. The reality might be a bit surprising.

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety, vehicle accidents, including those with fatalities, have been trending down over the past four years. Out of 18,452 single-vehicle accidents recorded in 2011 with determining factors, the DPS reported that 14.2% of these accidents were related to weather. Regarding multiple-vehicle accidents, the DPS reported that 4.2% out of 66,598 accidents also cited weather as a contributing factor. These two figured combined accounted for just fewer than 5,400 accidents statewide.

As small as these numbers appear to be, it does not fully tell the story. A vehicle accident during the winter months involves more than just the weather and road conditions, as it does driver behavior. The state’s Office of Traffic Safety also stated that the top three reasons for all reportable accidents involve “driver inattention/distraction, failure to yield right-of-way and illegal or unsafe speed.”

Consider this: These top three reasons for vehicle accidents in Minnesota happen year round. The potential for more dangerous situations involving higher speeds, driver distraction and not understanding the right-of-law laws are heightened when the roads are under less than favorable conditions.

Not to frighten you, but perhaps a reminder is needed on how to survive the winter without the hassle of calling your insurance carrier, reporting an incident, paying for your deductibles to your insurance carrier, and dealing with many other surprises that may come up if you do find yourself in an accident.

“So, Mr. Contributing Writer covering automotive issues for Lavender, how should we drive during the winter?”

The first thing that should be stated is the foundation of safe and proper driving comes from common sense. The basis of vehicle laws are rooted with the understanding that drivers are smart enough not to speed or do anything that would put anyone in danger out of the road.

On top of just simple common sense, it takes technique and discipline to manage the worst of conditions. It takes an alert driver, a patient set of hands and feet to get through even plowed streets and highways at the height of the winter.

For example, it is common sense to take control of the throttle and brake. When you are stopped at an intersection, it is suggested that you ease into the accelerator not to stir the drive wheels. The harder you tap the throttle, the more the drive wheels will spin to find grip. The result would be embarrassing. Once you lose grip, your vehicle will lose control. Even if your vehicle has traction control or all-wheel drive, it is always best to err on the side of caution and simply ease the throttle from idle into traffic.

Stopping the vehicle is pretty much the same. Regardless of whether the street is plowed or not, it is best to brake early when you know a stop sign is coming up or a light is about to change. It is best not to go hard on the brakes – just ease into it earlier than you would on drier surfaces. Brake harder, and the anti-locks kick in. On snow and ice, the anti-lock brakes would work, but they would also strike some fear in even the most “normal” drivers. Early braking saves the electronic nannies from kicking in at the worst time.

If you feel yourself sliding, the suggested technique is to correct your steering by turning opposite of the slide. It is not suggested that you turn the wheel quickly, but ease into the turn for the steering box to react to it. Modern automobiles are easing away from the hydraulic power-assisted steering system to more efficient electric systems. Some drivers may not like how these systems react, but in essence, they do work the same. Regardless of the kind of power assist your steering system has, a smoother reaction on the wheel is the difference between staying on the road and meeting the curb off of it.

There is something to be said about practicing your technique. It was suggested to find a large parking lot after a snowstorm to practice your snow driving. Most likely, this lot may have been plowed, which makes for a combination of scenarios out on the roads. However, take this opportunity to not test out your rallying skills. Practicing your winter driving skills does not include learning the Scandinavian Flick – a kind of turn perfected on the World Rally Championship. Your vehicle is not meant to race on snow, but to get you home safely.

Which brings us to the most important piece of road behavior advice – speed. Is it too much to ask for us to take our road speed down a notch? The higher the speed, the most likely your vehicle might find the spot where traction is non-existent. Even if you normally drive 75MPH in a 70MPH zone on the Interstate, perhaps taking it down to 65MPH would be easier as the roads might not be cured after being plowed.

About your vehicle, there are many things to consider doing before you tackle winter itself. First, get a winter check-up by a mechanic. That way, you will know what issues your vehicle might encounter in the course of the colder months. A typical winter check-up would include a check of all key systems to make sure they are proper working order. This will also include the electronic nannies – the traction control, anti-lock brakes and other related active safety devices. It is suggested that you make sure to have fresh wiper blades and all fluids topped off – including the all-important windshield washer fluid.

You may also want to see about your climate control to ensure that both the heater and defrosters are in proper working order as well. To finish ensuring your vehicle gets through the winter – get a good windshield scrapper/brush for the car to keep on the floorboard behind your seat.

The most important piece of the winter puzzle is your tires. There is a debate on whether you could live on one set of tires all year round or get a second set of winter tires. If you must have a set of winter tires, understand that the compounds – the tread construction and rubber component – are very soft. Winter tires are designed for operation at lower temperatures. If they hit a point above freezing, they may not be effective on the road.

All-season tires are an option to consider if you do not want the risk of a second set of tires. Make sure these tires are rated for Mud and Snow use (M+S) for maximum use and wear. As part of your winter check-in, you will have your regular tires looked at. If you have more than enough tread life to get through this winter, you may have saved quite a bit of money replacing them. Keep in mind that tires are now a bigger investment than ever with lower profiles, larger diameter wheels and more specialized types of tires.

Because some of us travel outside of town, the biggest suggestion given by your fellow travelers is to have a “winter survival kit” on board your vehicle. Such a kit would include a warm blanket, a bottle of drinking water, a candle, a lighter, some flares, and some nutrition bars. One thing to ensure that you have is a mobile phone to dial out for help – whether it is calling 911 or a roadside assistance program. If you vehicle has a telematics program – OnStar, for example – they should detect a problem if you are stuck and would send help as soon as they can.

Perhaps the biggest survival kit needed is one you might never of thought of: Having a full tank of gas. By keeping your tank full, you are reducing condensation in both the fuel lines and the engine. Most importantly, a full tank of gas would get you to a service station or rest area so help can find you easily during a winter-induced situation.

It is a lot of information parsed out here. Remember that all of these tips are rooted in simple common sense. The last thing anyone wants to hear is whether you are involved in an incident this winter. After all, we want you to be safe, first and foremost.

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