Thursday, February 2, 2017

Top 6 Ways to Stay OUT of the Ditch This Winter

1.    Slow Down. Now this might seem a little bit obvious but it’s the #1 thing you can do to safely navigate snow and ice. Slow and measured actions are safe and prudent. A few years ago I was driving about 25 mph on an Oregon mountain pass as the snow fell. I was passed several times by large 4-wheel drive vehicles. One of the very same SUVs that passed me going around 50 MPH had slid off the road about 5 miles later. In fact I counted six different 4WD vehicles (in the ditch) that particular trip. It is better to drive a little slower and get home safe than overestimate your driving and/or vehicle’s capability and end up off the road. 

2.    Accelerate and Brake slowly and smoothly. Beneath the surface of a light snow pack is often ice. If a car has some momentum you can usually go straight without too many problems, however as soon as you turn too quickly or brake too hard that grip is easily lost. That’s why you see many cars off the side of the road where there are big turns (on-ramps), or near hills. When the roads look clear but temperatures are freezing, it’s crucial to slow down, because you can’t always see ice on the road. Black ice is invisible to drivers and will sneak up on you, especially on bridges. Since cold air flows underneath them, you can assume the bridge coming up is frozen and slippery. Proceed with caution and cover your brake.

3.    Winterize your vehicle. Replacing the water in your radiator with antifreeze will protect your engine. Keeping your gas tank at least half-full will keep your car running if you get stuck. A good friend was stuck in I-405 traffic for 5 hours during that major Seattle snowstorm in '08. Luckily, he had enough gas. However, many people ditched their cars on the side of the freeway and had to hike to the next exit to get gas. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever valued wiper fluid as much as I do when I’ve been showered with dirty winter snow from the big trucks in front of me.

4.    The Separation is in the Preparation. When Russell Wilson said this he was referring to football; however, we’re going to apply it to winter driving. Every car should be equipped with an emergency kit complete with first aid, triangles or flares, jumper cables, and flashlight/batteries, etc. Also a charged cell phone, a blanket, granola bar, and water will come in handy while you wait for help to come. If you go out in the snow, it’s a good idea to throw a small shovel and a sand/cat litter bag in the trunk in case you get stuck and need to dig yourself out.  

5. Skidding out of control? Steer in the direction you want to go. Many people that have not experienced a skid get this one confused. Should you turn into the skid or away? And what does that mean anyway? Here’s an example: if your back end is sliding to your right, you need to steer to the right as well. If you steered to the left in this situation you would end up spinning around.

I was driving in upstate New York one winter when a snowstorm hit. I was doing about 50 MPH and didn’t realize how slick the freeway was and I started to slide. I steered in the direction of the skid, but the tail of my car whipped back the other way as soon as I got control. This went on back and forth five or six times until I was finally able to stop less than a foot from a cement barrier. I’ll admit, I had to take a break for a minute to catch my breath from all the adrenaline. The car behind me, who witnessed the entire ordeal, was clapping as he drove by. I wasn’t trying to look like a stunt driver, but did slow down considerably for the rest of the trip. I just count my lucky stars it was a wide freeway and my car didn’t hit anything. Bottom line: look where you want to go and do whatever it takes to steer yourself there. The wheel will jerk but you need to hold it steady. If you look off the road, that's where you'll go. Keep focused on your empty lane ahead and that's where you'll go. This guy gets it . . . 

6.    Stay home. What? Did I really just say that? I’m sure you’re yelling at your screen, “How dare you infringe on my driving rights”! True, you can try to brave the weather, however we need to gauge our risk tolerance with our pocket book. The average cost for a crash with vehicle property damage is around $7,500. Your insurance will pay for most of that, but they are in business for a reason, and you’ll eventually pay them back through higher premiums. So if you just want to go out in a snowstorm for a donut run, you might want to err on the side of caution. 
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