“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.”