Blizzard Wizards

Many veterans of the highway say winter driving holds no special fear for them. Others dread the onslaught of slick roads, whiteouts and downtime in truckstops waiting for roads to open.

Beyond the pretrip, how can a driver nip winter’s problems in the bud? Certainly a driver’s aggressive awareness comes in handy. Grant Sheldon, an owner-operator for 10 years, uses every opportunity to check his truck and perform basic maintenance to keep problems at bay. “I pull the drain cord on my air system three or four times a day,” Sheldon says.
Sheldon says he has used air system conditioner to maintain his braking. He does not recommend the use of alcohol. “Alcohol dries out seals and causes valves to leak,” Sheldon says.

Carol Priddy, spokesperson for Bendix, says Bendix no longer suggests the use of any conditioners or alcohol in air lines. Priddy says Bendix dryers are sufficient to keep air lines dry. And Sheldon agrees modern dryers do the job: “Last time I cracked open my dryer, it had 300,000 miles on it, and there was still more than three quarters of the desiccant left in there,” Sheldon offers. “But I still pull that drain cord.”

Sheldon’s strategy of returning to fundamental procedures is an upgrade of the typical pretrip and a driver’s overall behavior. Lulled into complacency by better equipment and summer skies, it is all too easy to forget the basics. A pretrip should begin when you walk toward your truck. A quick look under the engine will discover any oil, fuel or coolant leaks much more easily cared for at the truckstop than on the side of the road. If you do not like to idle much, you might consider firing it up before going inside so that you can get the fluids moving, and then any leaks you have will become obvious. Long before winter, owner-operators like Sheldon, who does his own mechanical work, might consider flushing the radiator and changing all the lubes. While fleet drivers don’t generally do maintenance, the smart drivers can check with their terminal’s shop to make sure coolant levels are right and air system maintenance and lubrication have been done. Perseverance here can circumvent trouble when the snow flies.

One fundamental often overlooked by even the best drivers is a coolant check. Radiators are very sensitive to even the slightest loss of coolant. Taking off the radiator cap also gives you the chance to see if there is anything but coolant in your radiator. You will want to know if there is oil in there, whatever time of year it is.

Check electrical connections to make sure they are covered. Chuck Blake, systems engineer for Detroit Diesel, takes this a step further. “Electronic control modules aren’t sensitive to cold but can be affected by accumulations of snow and ice on wiring harnesses,” he says. In severe or sloppy conditions you might find such a buildup.

The fleet driver who carries a tire gauge is rare indeed. In winter, tire checks are just as important as they are at any other time of year. However, they are important for a different reason, says Steve Mathews, development engineer for Continental Tire: “Some people think they will get more [snow and ice] traction by deflating their tires a little. This is not true. All deflation does is mangle the footprint, which decreases mileage and causes excess wear.” If you put a gauge on your tires at least once a week, you are doing the boss a favor.

One aspect of winter driving that doesn’t get enough attention is ice and snow on the trailer roof. It is extremely difficult to deal with this problem, but denying its existence can lead to overweight at the scales and accidents caused by flying chunks of ice. Drop-and-hook operations are particularly prone to this problem, and drivers need to be aware that trailers left sitting to wait for pick-up can cause difficulties. Only your judgment can tell you whether to risk injury by finding a ladder or risk a ticket on the highway. Keith Overcash, western regional manager for the Pennsylvania DOT, says, “Ice and snow are considered part of the load and dunnage in Pennsylvania.” Overcash adds that citing a driver for losing dunnage or part of the load is at the discretion of officers. “But if snow and ice falling from a truck causes an incident, the driver will most likely be charged,” Overcash says.

In winter you drive even when the road is ice-covered or the snow is thick as valley fog because stopping can often be more dangerous than continuing. Caught in whiteouts or on black ice, pulling onto the berm may mean getting hit from behind or getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. “Most of the time you will run out of bad weather within a hundred miles or so,” Sheldon says. “I keep moving.” Crawling through a few miles of black ice seems less of a risk than stopping on the side where you might be hit if another vehicle loses traction.

A CB with a weather channel can be very useful in reducing this kind of weather-related risk.

You can also be surprised traveling from south to north. Untreated fuel you take on in Georgia, for example, can gel in New Jersey. Owner-operators often use a treatment like Power Service or Howe’s Lubricator to counteract abrupt changes in temperature and extremely low temperatures. Jeff Schroeder, a driver for Airline Transportation Services, says “Southern snow is often very wet. This makes it greasy as soon as it falls on the road. Up north it takes longer for roads to get slippery when the snow is drier.”

As it is all year, speed is the most frequent cause of winter crashes and in making crashes more severe. In general, slower is safer even if some drivers cause hazards by driving without regard for changing conditions.

Your chance of colliding with another vehicle can be minimized. Do not travel in packs. Maintain more than adequate following distance. “I might speed up a couple of miles an hour to get around packs of cars and trucks,” Schroeder says. “I want them behind me. But I slow down in bad weather even though I am confident in snow. When there is ice, I get off. When there is ice, there is no friction and no traction. You can’t disobey the laws of physics and get away with it.

“Every driver has a comfort level,” Schroeder adds. “If you know your abilities, you also know when you have gone beyond your comfort level and have outdriven your ability. It’s time to get off when that happens.”

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