On The Skids

When frost bites and tires slip, it can really hurt. The best approach to cold-weather operation is preventive medicine: preparation, patience and smart driving.

Tom Hartley, now the safety director for New England Motor Freight, got stuck in his truck for two days one Thanksgiving after a Pennsylvania snowstorm ran him off the road and into the woods. He was rescued when state police on snowmobiles dug him out.

Hartley was fortunate: He had packed a wintertime survival kit.

Art Tilton, who drives for Central Refrigeration, says he always keeps 5 gallons of water, a month’s supply of food and extra clothes in his truck in case of wintertime emergencies. In addition to those items, it is a good idea to keep matches, candles, a snow shovel, a heavy coat, head covering, mittens and boots on hand.

“You hear horror stories about people that could have survived if only they had proper equipment,” says Jim Tammes, who has served as a safety director for Dart Transit Co. for 20 years. As for stories of drivers braving bad winter weather conditions to deliver on time, “I see that not as an act of heroism, but stupidity,” he says.

Emergency preparedness is only one safety aspect of operating in severe winter conditions. Driving your truck – and even deciding whether it’s safe to drive – presents other challenges, especially for those not accustomed to slick surfaces.

“Just because the road is open does not mean you can speed up,” says Chuck Mosqueda, a supervisor with the Commercial Driver Program at Wichita Area Technical College in Kansas. Mosqueda explains that a truck going only 10 mph faster than a safe speed could be thrown out of control by black ice – an invisible coating of ice that appears to be water. He says it is the driver’s responsibility to decide if road conditions are safe. “It’s better to come in a little late than to wind up in a ditch,” Mosqueda says.

Ice is more likely to form on bridges, which can be as much as 15 degrees colder than solid ground. And when water coats a frozen surface, it reduces traction to zero. In such situations, “Get off the road and wait for the weather to clear,” advises Gary Helphrey, an instructor at Western Pacific Truck School of Oregon.

Bill Carraway, a Universal Amcan driver, was driving on what looked like a clear route when some ice sent him into a snowdrift. He was stuck for only a few hours, but Carraway says he has learned to take it slow and avoid quick stops. “Snow isn’t the problem; it’s the ice that gets you,” Carraway says.

Tammes encourages drivers to put in time on the company’s skid pad so they can learn to handle loss of control. He says steering into the skid is critical to coming out of it.

The other key aspect about losing control is that it happens to others. “The best winter driver can’t control what will happen if the car next to him suddenly goes into a spin,” Tammes says. He stresses that drivers should stay alert to other motorists in adverse conditions.

Dart Vehicle Maintenance Manager Jerry Hein remembers driving 15 mph through heavy snow on slick roads when a car lost control, grazed Hein’s rig and spun into a ditch. Though it took more than 150 yards, Hein stopped to help, but before he could offer assistance the car was free and speeding away, nearly running over Hein in the process.

Chains are an important tool for handling icy roads, though some careless drivers avoid using them because they limit speed. Other drivers – especially truckers who drive mostly in the South – fail to use chains because they don’t know when or how to put them on, or they don’t check on weather with dispatch or a state’s 511 system.

Drivers unaccustomed to severe winters also often make the mistake of not dressing appropriately. Warm headgear is critical because up to 70 percent of body heat can be lost through the head. Wearing thick, dry socks and quality mittens or gloves also helps because the extremities lose heat easily and are the most prone to frostbite.

Tim Maddox of Mobile, Ala., a driver for Hornaday, wasn’t prepared the first few times he ventured into Northern winters. “It really surprised me,” he says. “The only white I’m used to seeing on the ground is sand.” He now packs warmer clothes and slows down considerably on the ice.

Lack of experience driving in severe winter weather isn’t the only thing that can catch a driver off guard. The spring and fall seem to have the most trucker fatalities, Tammes says, attributing that to sporadic warm weather lulling drivers into a false sense of security. That could be one reason why trucker fatalities in the Northeastern and Midwestern states are lowest in the winter, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whether you’re driving in transitional weather or the dead of winter, take extra caution when temperatures dip to freezing. Driving at a slow pace can make you feel like you’ve been on the road for months, but spending a couple of extra hours isn’t too high a price to pay for safety.

If the roads are bad enough for chains, your best bet is to pull over and wait for things to clear up. Should you need to use chains to get out of a bad situation or to reach shelter, here are some guidelines:

USE THE RIGHT SIZE. Tire chains are sold to meet specific tire sizes to ensure they won’t slip around the tire and scar your equipment.

INSTALL THEM CORRECTLY. No matter how many instructional videos you watch, putting chains on can be difficult at first. Make it your business to learn how to put them on before you have a nighttime emergency in blinding snow and sub-freezing temperatures. Check their condition in the fall and carry a tool to tighten them.

DON’T BE SHY ABOUT USING THEM. It’s easier to apply the chains as bad conditions set in than in super-cold temperatures as you fight through 2 feet of snow.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS. Just because you’ve got traction doesn’t mean you are free to go. Consider visibility, grade and road condition before proceeding.