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Winter driving

Avoiding risk
Driving in low traction situations
Skid control
Winter driving preparedness


Clark County does not get an abundance of snow every year. Because of this, many drivers are not prepared for the challenges of decreased traction and the problems that accompany extremely cold temperatures. The following discussion was prepared by Deputy Jim Drew from the Clark County Sheriff's Office. While not comprehensive, it may provide you with some tips that could keep you safe and avoid an incident that will remind you of the deductible amount on your auto insurance.

Avoiding risk
Many winter driving problems may simply be avoided by staying home! While investigating many collisions over the years, I have often asked, “Where were you headed?” Much of the time the driver, sometimes sheepishly, would answer something like, "To the store to rent a movie," or "Over to visit a friend." With a little pre-planning, and/or postponing your trips (usually a short while around Clark County), you totally avoid a ride home with the tow truck driver.

If you absolutely have to travel, making sure the car is prepared in advanced may avoid unnecessary delays. Make an annual checklist to review in October with the following items:

• Tune-Up
• Antifreeze
• Battery
• Any leaks
• Windshield wipers
• Fuel level
• Windshield washer fluid
• Heater/defroster function
• Proper tires and inflation
• Chains
• Ice scrapper
• Blankets
• Bag of sand or kitty litter
• Cell phone and charger.

Driving in low traction situations
When traction is reduced due to wet, icy or snow covered roadways, the first rule is to slow down! It may take 5 to 6 times the distance to bring a vehicle safely to a stop on ice compared to dry pavement.

Hills can be especially challenging. One hint for traveling on hills is to avoid non-plowed and sanded roadways altogether. To safely negotiate a downhill grade, do not allow the vehicle to gain speed. Pick a safe speed, and keep the vehicle under that speed. Anticipate any turns and stops you need to make.

Do not allow yourself to be distracted. You need to keep your eyes pointed in the direction you want to travel. Look 2-5 seconds ahead to anticipate stops and oncoming traffic. Leave additional distance between yourself and the vehicle you are following. It takes the average driver 3/4 to 1 1/2 seconds to react.

At 40 MPH, you will have covered 45 to 90 feet before you have attempted to turn, slow, or accelerate to avoid a problem. That is 3-6 car lengths just to react! Then add to that skidding distance. To skid to a stop on level ground with packed snow takes approximately 140 feet -- giving a total stopping distance of over 200 feet.

Driving on snowy/icy roads is much like a race car traveling at high speeds on good traction. The drivers on a race circuit that do well do so by making smooth, gentle inputs on the controls. They are running at the limits of traction just like a street car on a slippery surface. The more stable they are, the better chance we have at a safe trip. The advantages they have over us as we drive are safety equipment, immediate medical help if needed, and no cross traffic! One thing we can do to keep driving smoothly is to drive as if we are stepping on eggs. Use the gas/brake as though you don't want to break the eggshells.

Skid control
New vehicles may have ABS brakes and/or traction control. Some may even have a system that actively controls throttle, braking and suspension settings that may help guide the car in a skid. The laws of physics still apply. The faster you crash, the harder you hit! Sometimes, the car will skid even at slow speeds. When that occurs, you may feel that the front wheels will not steer the vehicle around a corner as much as you have steered. To correct this understeer (or push as the NASCAR boys say) condition, let off the throttle, straighten the steering wheel and slow the vehicle. Once slowed, the car may be able to be steered around the corner.

When steering through a corner and the rear of the car slides out, many people want the ride to stop NOW. Resist applying the brake. This is an oversteer or rear-wheel skid. To correct, continue to look at the roadway 2-3 seconds in front of your car, steer toward that location and add a little throttle. Yes, I said accelerate. This will put a little more weight to the rear of the vehicle, giving those tires a little more traction.

Make sure you stop the skid. If you don't, the skid created in the opposite direction will typically be worse. Note: The only time this does not help is if the throttle is already on and the wheels are spinning without traction causing a "power oversteer" condition. In this case, lighten pressure on the throttle to stop the spinning.

Winter driving preparedness
Many people are justifiably nervous about winter driving. My comments earlier of avoiding driving in snow and ice may not be practical, so what do we do? Practicing in an empty parking lot worked for me 35 years ago, but there are risks and limits to skidding on someone else's property. Additionally, because snow is so rare here, opportunities are few and far between for doing your imitation of the Dukes of Hazard.

Fortunately, there is at least one local company that offers driver training in specially prepared "skid cars.” The training is completed at 10-15 MPH under controlled situations. This occurs in three hours and gives more training than can typically be done in days on the open road. All of this with no risk!! I have trained hundreds of students over 5 years, and no one has suffered anything more than minor motion sickness. The City of Vancouver found this to be so valuable that they purchased a skid car for training city employees. Look under Portland's yellow pages under "driving instruction" for a list of schools.

No written article can substitute for actual training. And remember, winter driving with its additional challenges make it even more important to look ahead and avoid distractions. Drive attentively this winter!


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