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Winter Driving: A Timely Review of the Essentials

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Some things never change — and that includes the number of commercial motor vehicle accidents accumulated every year in winter weather. With the change of seasons, even the most experienced driver is not immune to mishaps caused by overlooking the need to shift gears mentally and adjust for different driving conditions.

That is easy to forget, so a refresher course may be in order. It cannot hurt to remind ourselves of some fundamentals that require increased consideration, starting every year at about this time.

Too Fast for the Weather

Speed is the first issue that drivers need to take into account. What may be safe and reasonable during summer driving becomes a dangerous rate of travel when things get bad outside — or even mildly hazardous.

The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, among others, calls this “driving too fast for conditions,” a term acknowledging that safe speed is not absolute but relative. Using its Fatality Analysis Reporting System or FARS, the FMCSA has found that 25 percent of large-truck fatalities related to unsafe speed occurred during adverse weather conditions.

This statistic makes it clear that the upper limit of a vehicle’s safe speed changes dramatically as soon as bad weather sets in.

How fast is too fast? FMCSA provides a rough rule. They suggest that on wet roads, the driver should reduce speed by one third — and on snow, by half. A truck traveling at 60 mph on a sunny summer day would slow to 40 in winter rain and to 30 if there is snow on the ground. This is by no means a hard-and-fast principle and the circumstance may call for even less speed, or for stopping altogether until conditions improve.

Check That Equipment

If there are any drivers out there who still are not using seat belts, here is another figure, one mentioned in an article on winter driving published by the American Trucking Associations: 45 percent. That is how much the risk of fatal injury is reduced by wearing a safety belt. It is hard to argue against any measure that decreases the likelihood of a driver fatality by almost half.

The ATA’s winter driving tips include a pre-departure inspection to make sure that snow and ice are removed from the vehicle and awareness of how icy roads affect braking. It is not only the truck’s own brake performance but also that of other drivers, who may make unpredictable moves if they find their automobile’s braking or handling has changed. Accordingly, allow extra distance from others sharing the road.

One more caution from the ATA is to keep an eye out for unexpected changes in weather, which occur frequently in the early morning or evening hours. At those times of day, a drop in temperature can deposit snow or ice on the road surface.5

Although commercial vehicle operators will exercise increased caution in bad weather, other drivers may not, warns an article in industry publication Smart Trucking. In their words: “Knowledge and implementation of proper, preventative safety skills for driving in poor conditions, can truly separate the professional drivers from the rest of the pack.” 

Slow Down in Winter Driving Conditions

The experts at Smart Trucking concur on the necessity of slowing down when there is the possibility of snow or ice, and when visibility is poor. They emphasize the advisability of leaving a longer following distance due to that decrease in visibility and loss of road traction. As a useful rule, they suggest that being able to see the taillights of the vehicle ahead “means following too closely.”

While staying close to other drivers might be an effective winter tactic in case of getting lost, or running afoul of a snowdrift, it is not worth the extra hazard, advises this group. “Don’t travel as part of a pack,” they say. “Find a safe way to get away from the pack and travel alone, with the goal being too maximize the distance around your vehicle.”

Other winter driving tips cover the usual subjects: make sure of the intended route, consider packing an emergency kit of supplies, plan ahead, keep those eyes on the road. But, as a general guide, the above precautions — don’t drive too fast for conditions or traffic, make sure the vehicle is in good shape, always maintain a decent-sized buffer zone — are good all-around, all-year practices that are even more important at a time of year when the allowable margin of error is considerably less.


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