Snow Biz

| September 11, 2005

Roehl driver Tony Long warns younger drivers that just because their first few journeys over snow and ice were uneventful, that doesn’t mean they should make the mistake of overconfidence on future trips.

For all their power, wheels and weight, big trucks can easily get stuck or roll over. It just takes one misstep. So winter, with its snow, sleet and ice, is a treacherous time for drivers.

By taking the right precautions and following a few basic winter-driving rules, drivers can make it through the cold months without mishap.

The most important winter driving asset a driver can have is the right attitude.

Roehl company driver Tony Long of Newnan, Ga., recalls a snow storm that hit two days before Christmas last year in southern Illinois and western Kentucky. He was going about 25 miles an hour on I-24 between Marion and Paducah, and other drivers were on the CB yelling at him for going too slow. There were numerous trucks that had slid off the road up and down the interstate.

“The super truckers blow by you,” he says, “then you see them a couple miles down the road slid off in a ditch.”

It’s a common trap into which drivers fall: drive through snow or ice a couple of times with no problems and it starts to look easy.

“They get overconfident,” Long says. “They do that stuff a few times without getting into trouble, and they start to think they’re invincible.” Drivers conclude that their 10th experience driving through frozen precipitation is somehow not as dangerous as their first, so they drive faster.

Unlearning such ideas is necessary, but it can be costly. Long remembers one customer’s lot in Ohio. “They never plow it. They just kind of let the trucks tamp it down. One driver took a curve at about 20 miles an hour.” Long explained it was just a slow, easy curve. “His drives slipped, and he jackknifed and slid into a ditch.”

The driver was not injured, but a few seconds of carelessness had cost driver and employer more for towing, lost time and income than the trip paid. Plus, the truck was damaged.

To put it as bluntly as possible: It’s best to avoid driving in snow and ice whenever possible.

“Common sense will tell you if you start to slip, find some place to park it,” says McElroy Truck Lines driver Robert Bass of Waynesboro, Miss. “At least that’s what I do.”

There’s always pressure to deliver no matter what, so parking during bad weather might not sound like an option. But most trucking companies would rather their drivers park than drive through risky weather. “It’s against company policy to drive in icy conditions anyway,” says Southern Refrigerated Transport driver Robert Wethington of Hammond, La.

Some companies issue chains or cables during the winter, and some states require that truckers carry chains from autumn until spring. But not all companies want their drivers to chain up except to get someplace safe. Every company has a different chain-up policy, and it’s best to get it straight from the safety chief. But the general rule is you don’t chain up to deliver freight on time, and certainly not to reach your favorite truckstop. You chain up to get to the closest safe place and wait until conditions improve.

“With chains, you’re basically adding iron over the top of rubber to enhance your traction,” says Bekins driver Steve Ross of Albuquerque, N.M., who has more than 20 years experience. “Any time you have to add iron to rubber to get traction, it’s probably too bad to drive.”

“I’ve never chained up,” says Wethington, with more than 23 years of experience. “If the roads are so bad the chains are required, then it’s not safe for me to drive anyway. You need to find a safe haven, like a truckstop, a rest area or even a store parking lot. That way you’ll be able to get something to eat and stay warm.”

“I’ve never put on a set of chains, never had to use them,” says Bass, who has more than 20 years of experience. “If it starts getting dangerous, I shut it down.”

It’s often a judgment call. If you don’t feel confident of your ability to pilot the rig safely through slush, snow, ice or sleet, often accompanied by strong winds that can take a truck right off the road, then as a smart driver you’ll park it and notify the right people. If dispatchers disagree, invite them to call the company’s safety department or state DOT for a review of company policy and applicable laws (FMCSR 392.14).

A warning: on the shoulder during a nighttime January blizzard is neither the place nor time to chain up for the first time, and doing it wrong can damage tires and chains. Videos and how-to pamphlets cannot substitute for hands-on practice. If you’re unsure about it, ask for help. It’s a common wintertime request. Practice putting chains on in a vacant lot before the first snow falls.

Truckers who choose to drive during winter weather will be wise to faithfully observe another rule.

“You’ve got to slow down,” says truck-driving instructor Mark Golly of Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa. “That’s just the cardinal rule. When the temperature drops and you get precipitation, you’ve got to slow down by one-third to one-half speed.” Golly is skid-pad certified and knows all about handling trucks in low-traction situations, but he knows that excess speed can make adequate safety impossible. “If you’re going too fast, you’re just along for the ride. Excessive speed is the primary factor in wintertime accidents; basically driving too fast for conditions is the number one reason why drivers get into trouble.”

Golly will get no arguments from smart drivers. “I’d rather go too slow and know I could probably drive faster than go too fast and find out I should have slowed down,” Long says.

“That’s the main thing on snow or ice: slow down,” Bass says. “The freight’s not worth your life or anybody else’s, and it’s not going to get there before you do unless you back into the gate.”

“Mostly I just slow down,” Wethington says. “I go at least 10 miles an hour under the speed limit in snowy and icy conditions. I keep my radio on the weather channel, and if somebody wants to pass me I just slow down more.”

Winter roadways have a bag of tricks to play on drivers. Changes in the road surface – tarmac to concrete, Interstate to federal highway, main avenue to side street – can mean surprise changes in traction. “It seems like the interstates can be perfectly fine to drive on,” Golly says. “But when you get on the off ramp or side streets, you need to be slowed down and prepared for slick conditions.”

“If it’s the winter time and you’re approaching a bridge, you need to slow down,” Wethington says. Glistening roadway over a bridge in freezing weather means trouble. If there’s other traffic on the bridge, observe it as you slow down and approach.

“One thing I learned is to watch their tires,” Bass says. “If you see spray coming up, then it’s probably just wet. But if you don’t see spray, that’s probably ice because frozen water won’t spray.”

When you slow down, do it carefully. Even normal braking can cause a skid on a slippery road. “When the road conditions are slick, you have to have a steady hand on the wheel and stay off the brakes,” Golly says. Sudden steering that’s taken for granted on dry pavement – a swerve to avoid debris – can cause instant loss of control on a slick road. “It’s important, if you see you’re about to miss an exit, not to steer sharply to try and get it because you can easily put your tractor-trailer into a skid,” Golly says. “You’re better off going down to the next exit, turning around and coming back.”

The main component of the right winter driving attitude will always be reduced speed. “Being in a hurry will get you in trouble,” Golly says. “I think the best things that drivers can do is slow down, plan their trips, be prepared, and don’t get in a hurry in bad weather.”

Reduced speed decreases the possibility of skidding on roadways. But a drop-and-hook in a snow-covered dirt lot can be treacherous, too. The snow hides deep potholes, curbs and debris that can flat a tire. Too fast and you might lose control; too slow and you lose the momentum that carries you through the deep stuff.

“If I’m going bobtailing into a snow-covered lot to get a trailer, I park it first, get out and walk the lot to see what the ground is like, how it reacts to my weight,” Wethington says. “I’ve done that plenty of times. If your feet start slipping or sinking, what do you think that big unit’s gonna do?”

While on snow-covered lots, observe any tracks from other vehicles. You can learn from previous drivers’ mistakes. “Look at what other kinds of vehicles have gone in there,” Wethington says. “That will tell you what kind of condition the ground is in. If you can see where other vehicles have got stuck, it’s probably not a good idea to go there.”

Even after these precautions, there’s still a likelihood you’ll get stuck sometimes. “It’s like Murphy’s Law,” Wethington says. “If something can go wrong, it will.”

“You’re going to make mistakes,” Bass says. “You’re going to mess up sooner or later.”

Fortunately, there are several methods that might get a big rig unstuck. First, stay calm. That’s not too difficult if you’re prepared for winter driving.

Bekins driver Ross has a simple winter-preparation formula. “To be legal, you need five single-wheel chains for the tractor and a set of drag chains for the trailer,” he says. For good measure, he throws in a 50-pound bag of cat litter or sand, a sturdy bag that won’t tear open, waste its contents and make a mess.

Drivers often pour chemicals, such as anti-freeze, bleach, ammonia or rubbing alcohol, under tires when they get stuck. These chemicals will melt ice, but in snow they’ll just make a toxic slush, and they will dramatically shorten tire life. As well, carrying these fluids can be tricky. Their original containers can be flimsy. If they leak, they will destroy cloth, take the finish off paint and corrode metal. Worse, they can emit toxic fumes and create a fire hazard inside the cab.

“You have to get something between your tires and the snow or ice,” Bass says, and the cat litter or sand works well, but it might take a lot. Chaining up is hard to do after you’re stuck, but 25 feet of strong towing chain can be invaluable. “A spare log chain is a great piece of equipment to carry in the winter,” Golly says. He also adds a small shovel to the list.

In a pinch, your supplies can include anything handy. “Put something under there like a board or a mud flap,” Wethington says.

Preparation includes learning a few techniques for getting unstuck. If the load is light, try starting out in third or even fourth gear. “I’ve had trailers that I’ve hooked up to, and once I hook up to them my drives spin,” Long says. “I go to the highest gear I can get into, say fourth if I have a real light load, and try easing the clutch out.”

“That’s probably the easiest way to get a light load moving,” Golly says. “Place the transmission in third or fourth gear. That helps prevent wheel spin.”

Another common technique is rocking the truck gently back and forth. This might build enough momentum to get the truck rolling. But the key word is “gently”. Either stay off the throttle or use it lightly. If the drives spin, disengage the clutch and reverse directions. If it’s not working, give it up to avoid digging in deeper.

Don’t be afraid to ask other drivers for a tow. If you have a good, strong towing chain and the drives aren’t dug in too deep, it’s a simple thing for another big truck – especially one with a heavy load – to pull you free. Again the operative term is gently. Just ease forward at an idle, if possible. A chain suddenly snapped taught is likely to come apart.

These simple tools and techniques will work most of the time. But getting stuck in wintry weather is part of trucking, and sometimes you can’t get free.

“If this doesn’t work, the only other thing I’d suggest is probably to call a wrecker or somebody to come and help you,” Bass says.

Don’t get too upset about it. “You’ll just get yourself more exhausted, and the first thing you’re wanting to do when you get unstuck is get back in the truck and go down the road,” Bass says. “Then you’re a safety hazard.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get one of these trucks on the road,” he says. “But you can’t be out there acting like a fool, either.”

And who says safety doesn’t pay? Ross recalls heading east on I-80 during a snowstorm toward California’s Donner Pass. Westbounders told him how bad it was atop the pass, and he shut down.

“I got off at the next exit and found a steak house with a great big lot,” he says. “I got on the CB and told the other drivers about it. They came in, and the manager gave me a steak for free.”

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