Traffic fatalities and injuries in the U.S. are increasing faster than we have seen in decades. Winter always brings its own unique set of traffic problems, so this month I want to highlight a few points and techniques that have helped me be a safe winter driver over the years.
During my more than 30 years of living in the U.S., I have called several states home and have dealt with two Michigan winters. I also travel extensively throughout the northern states during winter months, so driving out of an airport rental car lot, with frozen fingers, in blizzard conditions, is not an uncommon scenario for me.
It is also not uncommon for me to see distracted drivers on the roads. Manipulating, looking at, or talking on a phone while driving is remarkably dangerous. Doing so while driving in rain, snow or at night is like begging for a crash. Winter driving demands your full attention, as the nights are much longer and many people end up driving to and from work or school in total darkness. Road conditions in winter can change very quickly, such as a wet road icing over in seconds or light blowing snow suddenly settling, causing havoc. Also, signs informing drivers a bridge can freeze before surrounding roads should never be ignored.
I never mess with or manipulate my phone while driving. Instead, I have an app which autoreplies to people trying to call me by texting or speaking the message; “I am driving, will call you later”. I advise everyone to use/enable such an autoreply app. They often come standard on most new phones, and if not, there are several apps you can download.
Most cars manufactured within the last 15 years also have a temperature gauge to indicate outside temperature. If the temperature is close to freezing, which is 32 °F, be prepared to encounter ice. Checking gauges and constantly monitoring road conditions takes thought, eye scanning, analysis and concentration. It’s impossible to pay full attention to changing road conditions if your eyes and mind are focused on your phone. Even hands-free phone use is as mentally distracting as hand-held.
This may sound unbelievable, but I frequently see people tailgating while I’m driving in snow. This is particularly dangerous because braking distances increase when the surface of the road becomes slippery. In rain, up to 50% can be added to a vehicle’s stopping distance, depending on driver expertise, tire type/condition and vehicle weight. On snow, stopping distances can be tripled or more, depending on how much snow is present, whether the road is flat or on a slope, driver expertise, type of tires and vehicle weight. In snow, I leave at least four seconds between my vehicle and the one in front of me, as opposed to my normal two seconds. If I am being tailgated, I push that to around six seconds, in order to compensate for the tailgater and lessen my need to suddenly brake if traffic slows ahead of me. Another point to remember: ABS brakes work very, very well, but can be confused by ice and snow. This can also add to a vehicle’s stopping distance, so again, leave more room in these conditions.
Imagine a vehicle pulling out of an intersection in front of you. In dry daytime conditions this is probably nothing more than an annoyance. You easily avoid a crash by braking, but. if that same scenario happens on a snow covered road, it highlights the importance of “seeing” that vehicle much earlier in order to give you more time to prepare and react.
As I drive, I’m always “eyes up”, scanning for danger areas such as driveways, gas stations, strip mall exits, etc. Once you see intersections coming up, look for vehicles so you know as early as possible if a car is approaching an intersection or waiting to pull out. Most drivers are not good at judging speed and many do the classic glance and go, not even attempting to analyze an approaching vehicle’s speed. It may not seem fair, but it is totally up to you to figure out what these drivers may do and have a plan. The earlier you see a potential problem vehicle, the more time you will have to react and avoid them if they actually pull into traffic. On slippery winter roads, this “eyes up” technique is even more important, as it can give you valuable extra time and distance to evade.
I learned this final point long ago, while driving my Chevy Malibu through two Michigan winters. I always kept a few supplies in my vehicle: a warm waterproof jacket, a wooly hat, walking boots, gloves, an ice scraper, water and some snacks. These days I would add in a phone and a spare phone battery/charger. This is not a complete list but it was enough to help me out a couple of times. You never know when you might get stuck, so take the time to prepare.
Winter has already begun to raise its head. Unfortunately, drivers using phones will continue to be distracted, dangerous and vulnerable. Please be careful out there this holiday season.