Safe driving in winter weather requires preparation, patience and vigilance
George Spears has driven the rugged and perilous Dalton Highway that runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska for 30 years. A featured driver on the most recent season of the History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” series (9 p.m. ET, Sundays), Spears says there are two kinds of drivers on the highway: “One who’s been in the ditch and one who’s going. Yes, I’ve been in the ditch; yes, I’ve been upside down. I’ve been every way but sideways.”
Spears’ experiences in an extreme environment – where snow and ice can hang around for up to six months a year – are atypical of what most drivers will face. But many drivers do encounter unexpected road conditions en route in winter that demand an extra dose of attentiveness, preparation and skills to ensure safe arrivals.
Successful winter driving begins before you pull out. “No. 1 thing we preach is to be prepared,” says David Martin, regional recruiting and safety supervisor for Oak Harbor Freight Lines, based in Portland, Ore. They urge drivers to have appropriate clothing and food and water on board, including “something to snack on if you are caught in a mountain pass for eight to 10 hours while they clear avalanches.”
Gordon Bow, independent owner-operator from Oakfield, N.Y., begins prepping his truck in the fall for winter driving. He makes sure his heater cores are dust-free, his batteries charged and free of corrosion on the terminals and his radiator and heater hoses free of cracks. He ensures his air dryer is working well and replaces the filter if necessary.
If Bow has to replace any tires, he’ll do it in late fall. “They will harden up and give you better service if you replace them in the fall,” he says. “You’ll lose a couple of 32nds faster if you replace them in July than in November or December.” And inspect your tire chains for broken links.
It seems like a no-brainer to slow down on snowy or icy roads, but Bow says if you feel comfortable going 45 mph, throttle your speed down to 40 or 42 to maintain control. If you feel slippage at all, he says, “you’re going too fast.” If you’re driving with chains, top speed should be 25-30 mph to protect your chains and tires.
When chaining up, Martin says don’t wait. “I always tell the guys there’s no shame in being the first to chain up and the last one to take them off. It’s a good thing to ask drivers for road conditions, but remember those drivers may be from different parts of the country and may not be familiar with driving conditions” in the area.
Spears says he averages 40 mph on his trips hauling equipment up grades that bend up to 14 percent to the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, above the Arctic Circle.
On occasion, you can be going too slowly, Martin says. On banked curves heading through mountains, if you’re under speed and don’t have traction, you can slide off the road.
If you feel your rig sliding, steer into the skid, lay off the brakes and gradually straighten out. Pump your clutch to maintain power to the wheels and try to steer out of the slide, Bow says: “When you have straightened out, let the clutch out and put power back. If you’re driving at a lower speed, 99 percent of the time you won’t have a situation like that.”
If you’re pulling a single trailer and it starts to skid, try to accelerate out of it, Martin says. “If you’re pulling doubles and the back trailer is sliding, if you have chains on and some traction, slowly try to accelerate, and that might pull the trail back in line.” If you slam on the brakes, he adds, “you’re done. Once your steer tires stop turning, you lose steering and you’re just a passenger.”
Above all, stay cool, Spears says. “Calm down and don’t over-correct. Take it easy and don’t get in a big hurry.”
Bow says following too closely is especially hazardous when driving on snow and ice. He advises one tractor-trailer rig length for every 10 mph. “That’s not too much – roughly 500 to 600 feet at 60 mph,” he says.
Proper distance is important to provide cushion from four-wheel drivers who are less experienced at maneuvering on snow and ice. “You see that a lot on mountain passes near ski resorts,” Martin says.
Eyeing road conditions
Know what road conditions are like by watching your drive and trailer tires and by opening your window to listen for spray. Watch for spray from oncoming traffic, too. If you don’t hear it or see it, chances are you are on dry pavement or black ice.
“Once you get on ice, you have a thin margin of error,” Martin says. “Watch for that shaded curve, under that overpass, on that bridge over a river. Ice is a surprise. It can catch you unaware.”
You’ll get better traction and a softer ride on snow than ice, Martin says. But snow can vary in wetness and texture. For example, in western Washington State and Oregon, snow often is wet and quickly turns to ice when temperatures drop, while the white stuff in eastern Oregon and Idaho can be drier.
Bow notes that temperature can change quickly, particularly at higher elevations. “Watch your mirrors and mirror braces for buildup of ice,” he says. “If you don’t have an outside temperature gauge, I highly recommend getting an aftermarket gauge.”
Driving on snow and ice will wear you out. The strain of watching the road, keeping track of weather conditions and steering your rig will take its toll during winter driving, Martin says. “There’s nothing that will fatigue you faster than driving in a winter blizzard,” he says. “It’s just so stressful mentally and physically. You are constantly on high alert.”
Take frequent rest breaks and pull over if you feel the conditions are overwhelming you.