Put on Your Winter Hat

Preparing to drive in hazardous cold-weather conditions starts before you leave home.

Driving an 18-wheeler in wintry weather and on slippery road surfaces is trucking at its most dangerous. It takes a lot more planning than driving at any other time of year or in any other kind of conditions. Drivers must adequately prepare themselves, their equipment and their trucks. They must be much more aware of how the weather will influence their driving, and they must adopt different rules for driving.

Patrick Spillane, a driving instructor at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., provides the best way drivers can avoid highly dangerous situations. “Drivers have to put their winter hats on,” Spillane says.

The “winter hat” includes increased preparation for driver, truck and equipment. It means more careful planning and greater awareness. It means driving the truck very differently from the way you drive it during other seasons. Most of all, it focuses on prevention instead of correction.

According to the Journal of Transportation and Statistics, there are about 20 percent more truck crashes during the winter than summer in the central United States. The number climbs to 60 percent in the northern third of the country.

Spillane, along with Sid Allen of Crowder College, Neosho, Mo., and Dave Townsend of Central Area Tech, Drumright, Okla., are skid pad-qualified truck driving instructors. All are familiar in detail with the handling characteristics of big trucks on slippery and dry surfaces. All are experts in this field, and all agree – the rules for driving big trucks change dramatically in winter weather.

These rule changes focus on preventing emergency situations from happening rather than correcting them after they’ve started. Drivers must prepare themselves for driving in wintry conditions by increasing their awareness of how driving habits, the load, the delivery schedule, the route and the traffic conditions all interact with the weather.

First of all, be aware of the weather. Listen to weather reports on the radio or watch them on televisions in truckstops. Ask truckstop employees or other drivers about local weather conditions. Know what the weather will be along your route and at your destination. “Keep in touch with your dispatcher,” Townsend advises. “They often know about the weather where you’re going, and if you know and they don’t, you can tell them so they can inform other drivers.”

Get weather reports from local radio stations instead of satellite radio. “Satellite stations are national,” Allen says, “and they are often not aware of local weather conditions the way local radio stations are.”

Before you drive, check your truck thoroughly. “Take a minute and clean your running and head lights,” Townsend says. “They quickly get covered with snow and grime, and if you get into a scrape or are inspected, the first thing the police or DOT inspector will notice is that your lights were not visible.”

Think about your load in relation to the weather and road conditions. Is it light or heavy? This factor will determine how you will drive. If you are empty or hauling a light load – less than 20,000 pounds – your stopping distance will be greatly increased, and your stability will be greatly decreased.

Drivers also must anticipate longer days and longer trips. “Miles can decrease if safety is going to be paramount,” Spillane says. “A two-day trip might take four days. Plan ahead. If the weather is deteriorating, this will change the logistics of your trip. If your dispatcher is pushy, that can make it especially hard. If the driver does not have a lot of miles for the week, he or she might have to sacrifice.”

“Understand that everything about driving in winter weather is different,” Spillane continues. “You can’t wait until the last minute anymore. You can’t rush. You have to allow more time for everything. You have to accept that you cannot drive as far every day. Trips are often cut short or extended.”

“Be prepared to change your plans according to your gut feeling,” says Townsend. “If you feel it’s not safe to drive, then don’t drive.”

Most of all, you have to change your driving habits. “It is virtually impossible to drive safely in winter weather, or on any slick surface, if you’re driving too fast,” Allen cautions. “Slow down. A five-mile reduction in speed makes a big difference when it comes to keeping a truck under control. If you feel safe at 35, slow down to 30 to give yourself that extra cushion of safety.”

“Also,” Allen continues, “slowing down is important in steering. It’s easier to steer around a problem than stop for it, but you cannot steer safely if you’re going too fast.”

All three instructors agree on one thing: tailgating on slick surfaces is about the stupidest thing you can do.

“Speed is the main thrust of the conversation,” Spillane says. “It must be reduced drastically because traction has been reduced drastically. With the congestion on today’s roadways, drivers must allow themselves more following space.”

“It’s like a moving chess game,” Spillane says. “Drivers must think ahead. Slow down, focus and be smooth and gentle. Something as simple as a lane change can be very dangerous on slippery surfaces. Don’t get caught up in tailgating situations. Give yourself a lot of space, and give yourself a lot of time to make decisions.

Windy conditions often are likely in winter weather. This can make driving much more difficult. “A heavy load is much better than a light load,” Townsend says. “A truck is a high-profile vehicle. The wind catches it like a sail. If you have a heavy load, you’re going to get much better traction. Also, a loaded trailer will stop a lot faster than an empty one. The weight will help hold your trailer to the road if it’s icy and windy.”

What about driving on slippery roads in high winds with light loads? “You really shouldn’t be there,” Townsend says. “Often during the winter, the highways are closed for this reason.”

“If the wind starts pushing the trailer,” Allen says, “keep power to the truck. Do not stop. If you break speed, the wind will push the trailer around even more. If you can’t get out of the wind, be careful, because if the wind starts pushing your trailer, there’s not a lot you can do.”

Each skid is different, and many different factors are involved: speed, type of road surface, type of tires, weight and center of balance of load, wind speed and direction. But there are a few general characteristics that drivers can control. First of all, slow down, take it easy, give yourself plenty of space and don’t get into a skid. “Once a driver goes too fast, exceeds the traction of the vehicle and gets into a skid, it’s generally too late,” Spillane says. “Education can help drivers overcome panic, but once traction has been lost, there is very little a driver can do to prevent an accident. Work within the vehicle’s and your limitations. Slow down. Give more following distance. Stay out of crowds of vehicles and congestion. Plan ahead. Give yourself an out.”

“Sliding wheels tend to lead,” Allen adds. “If the trailer tandems start to slide, they will try to come around on you. Gently add a little power to the drives, or at least keep power to them, to try and keep the trailer tandems behind you.

“If the drive wheels start to slide, take power away from the truck by pushing in the clutch. If you keep power to them, they will keep spinning.”

The key to stopping a skid is to remove the factor that’s creating it. “If the brakes are causing the skid, get off the brakes, depress the clutch and try to steer someplace safe,” Spillane says.

“Too often, drivers look at where they’re going, or even in the rearview mirrors at the sliding trailer, instead of where they should be looking, which is where they want to go to get safe. Once you get into trouble, find the safe place and focus on getting there rather than on where you’re going or what your vehicle is doing.”

But usually, once you get into a skid or lose traction, it’s too late, so keep prevention at the front of your mind.


Winter Driving Tips

  • Get a winter-driving mentality.
  • Slow down.
  • Respect and be aware of the weather.
  • Be patient.
  • Stay calm.
  • Stay well clear of other vehicles.
  • Don’t drive in a pack.
  • Don’t tailgate.
  • Be mentally prepared.
  • Cut speed by at least 50 percent on slick surfaces.
  • Be aware of the wind and weight of load.
  • Know your route well.
  • Think ahead in traffic.
  • Slow down, steer to safety.
  • Watch bridges and overpasses for ice.
  • Drive within your limitations.
  • Trailer skids – keep power to drives.
  • Drive skids – remove power from drives (depress clutch pedal).
  • Braking skids – foot off brake and steer to safety.

Supplies to Take Along
Before you head out for a long haul during the winter months, take time to stock up on supplies to carry in your truck. These items will not only make you more comfortable, they could also help you survive if you run into trouble or are stranded.

  • Wool hats
  • Insulated gloves
  • Long underwear
  • Wool socks
  • Insulated boots
  • Heavy winter coat
  • Insulated body coveralls
  • One-a-day vitamins
  • Cell phone
  • Non-perishable food
  • Several jugs of water
  • Extra blankets or sleeping bags
  • Plastic bags for sanitation
  • First aid kit and medication
  • Flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • Extra fluids for the truck
  • Jumper cables
  • Tools
  • Duct and electrical tape
  • Heavy-duty electrical wire
  • Tire chains (and know how to put them on)
  • Towing chain
  • Extra wipers
  • Lock thaw
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Spare headlights and running lights
  • A long-necked funnel
  • Non-electric can opener

Checklist for Your Truck
The last thing you want to do is ignore your equipment when heading out onto cold, slippery roads. Take care of your truck, and it will help take care of you. The following is a list of things to check and remember in preparation for winter runs.

  • Do a good pre-trip inspection daily.
  • Tires for proper tread depth and type of tread
  • Check and clean all lights.
  • Dash and bunk fans
  • All hoses
  • Wiring
  • Belts
  • Truck radio
  • Mirror heaters and adjustors
  • Exhaust system
  • Windshield
  • Fuel filter
  • Truck batteries and battery cables
  • Proper motor oil
  • Trailer
  • Hanging wires
  • Worn or loose brake lines
  • Drain moisture from air tanks daily.
  • Remove water from fuel tanks or use additive.
  • Keep engine warm in sub-zero weather.
  • Use a block heater.
  • No southern fuel in northern climates.

Andy Haraldson

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